St. Thomas — It’s Monday, and this is my first post since June after a slight branding refresh. Today’s blog post was originally set to be on environmentalism and plastics in the Caribbean, but I felt compelled to write this instead to shed some light on sleep apnea, a life-threatening condition that could be affecting your productivity or someone you love.
So, what exactly is sleep apnea? Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts when the body should be resting. While snoring isn’t the only sign, it’s one of the more visible signs attributed to sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea, and central sleep apnea can affect anyone, including children and has no cure. For the sake of time, let’s stick to obstructive sleep apnea since it’s the most common type.
The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive apnea include:
- Loud snoring
- Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep — which would be reported by another person
- Gasping for air during sleep
- Awakening with a dry mouth
- Morning headache
- Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Difficulty paying attention while awake
Source: Mayo Clinic
Like most people, lack of sleep makes me cranky and irritable. Mayo Clinic’s description of the sleep disorder is watered down to the basics. However, it can creep into every aspect of your life, affecting your friendships — situationships — and relationships over time. Snoring can be annoying to some partners and family members, but let’s dive into more granular ways sleep apnea can affect your life — specifically how it affects mine.
I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea about two years ago. After two years of tug of war with insurance and local healthcare realities, I finally received a CPAP machine (short for continuous positive airway therapy) to help me breathe more easily during sleep. After receiving a sleep study on St. Thomas, I was shocked to find out that I stopped breathing every 15 minutes while asleep at night — this significantly reduced the amount of oxygen my brain and other organs received at night. Now 26, it was a rare occurrence for me to wake up feeling refreshed from a night of deep sleep even as a teenager.
Mayo Clinic, and many healthcare professionals describe the complications this causes with words like daytime fatigue, but what does that feel like?
While working on more creative projects for State of the Territory and clients, difficulty focusing or simply staying awake made the work frustrating and eventually sucked the fun out of working from home. I began producing sloppy work that eventually eroded my confidence, fueling anxious thoughts as more work piled up. I found myself falling asleep at work, while watching TV and a few times while driving. I regularly turned down invitations to nighttime events to minimize my time on the road after noticing that I couldn’t fight the sleep once it came my way. Later learning that people with sleep apnea have an increased risk of motor vehicle and workplace accidents.
I’ll explain my workflow to give some context. Most days, I sit at my desk hoping to be more productive than the previous day. Scrolling through emails, responding to iMessages, Whatsapp messages, returning phone calls, and sifting through the endless flow of information that lands on my phones in the form of notifications — it can be a tedious work for anyone.
I spend my work day reading interesting news articles, stories about grassroots politics, writing stories and creating deliverables for clients. Screen time and notification overload while fatigued from a night of crappy sleep can make it difficult to keep up with the work I have set out to complete. Skipping a night or two of CPAP therapy feels like a Hennessy or Brugal hangover during the day.
Adjusting to the CPAP machine took some time. Many nights I would pull the mask off my face only to wake up confused and tired the next morning.
According to Mayo Clinic, you might also feel quick-tempered, moody or depressed. Research from health studies found that adolescents with sleep apnea might perform poorly in school or have behavior problems. Sleep deprivation and decreased oxygen to the brain and other essential organs can also increase the chances of complications. I’m not ashamed to point out that my sleep deprivation got so bad that I began spiraling into episodes of severe anxiety and depression. It’s one of the lesser known symptoms that people miss.
Factors that increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea include:
- Excess weight. Obesity greatly increases the risk of sleep apnea. Fat deposits around your upper airway can obstruct your breathing.
- Neck circumference. People with thicker necks might have narrower airways.
- A narrowed airway. You might have inherited a narrow throat. Tonsils or adenoids also can enlarge and block the airway, particularly in children.
- Being male. Men are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea than are women. However, women increase their risk if they’re overweight, and their risk also appears to rise after menopause.
- Being older. Sleep apnea occurs significantly more often in older adults.
- Family history. Having family members with sleep apnea might increase your risk.
- Use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers. These substances relax the muscles in your throat, which can worsen obstructive sleep apnea.
- Smoking. Smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than are people who’ve never smoked. Smoking can increase the amount of inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway.
- Nasal congestion. If you have difficulty breathing through your nose — whether from an anatomical problem or allergies — you’re more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea.
Source: Mayo Clinic
I’ve concluded — and have known for some time — that sleep is directly connected to my mental health and overall happiness. Today, I feel amazing and wanted to share this information with anyone that might find it valuable in their life. There are days when I get less sleep than I wanted and still have to perform. Here’s how I manage my anxiety or depression on days when I’m feeling tired, can’t seem to focus or simply out of balance:
- Food. I don’t always eat when I start my day, but I always try to get at least two good meals if I’m having a light day. I avoid sugars that could make me crash suddenly and focus on veggies, proteins and flavor to make my brain and belly happy. Once your meals are fairly healthy, give you energy and help you focus, eat away!
- Music. Music is the biggest part of my day. It follows my moods and sometimes even sets it. Invest in a good music streaming service and categorize the expense as wellbeing management if you need a reason to justify spending on another streaming service besides Netflix. I use Google Play Music to stream conscious artists like SZA, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Lana Del Rey, Sade and Odd Future. I use Google Play Music because it goes a step further, recommending music that I listen to based on specific times of the day or week, parks I visit, and even automatically curating special playsists while I’m driving around island. I’d also, recommend services like Spotify or Apple Music for your listening pleasure.
- Bird listening. A few times a week, I take a few minutes out of my day to listen to birds in different locations on island. Not for research, but because it’s really relaxing. I spend 30-45 minutes listening to birds with ambient music in my car or headphones. I generally pick places that aren’t close to a main road and focus on low stress thoughts.
- Cartoons. Honestly, any joy-filled childhood past time should relax you. This one works wonders for me.
- Family and friends. Family and friends keep me grounded. Goals can make you busy, but taking time to call, text or Facetime with family and friends can change the dynamic of your week if timed correctly (This is something I’m working on).
- Gardening. I’m not very good at gardening, but it definitely creates some peaceful moments when I do it.
- Meditation or prayer. Meditation is new for me but I’ve explored it a few times in the past. If you’re looking for clarity, focus or even spiritual guidance, prayer or meditation is a great place to start.
Sleep apnea can disrupt your everyday life and put you at risk of several serious diseases, but there are ways to control it. Treatments, such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and oral appliances, help keep oxygen flowing into your lungs while you sleep at night or nap in the daytime. Talk to your doctor or primary care provider to if you have questions or concerns.
I hope this article helped you or someone you care about.