Sleep Apnea and Dreams

Our bodies function best when we are able to get a good, restorative night’s sleep. During sleep, it’s not only the body that rejuvenates, but also the brain. Detoxification processes happen during certain stages of sleep that allow your brain to function at its peak performance. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies and our minds can begin to suffer in a variety of ways. Some people, even though they may stay in bed for long hours, are not able to get the amount or kind of sleep they need to feel rested when they wake up. This may be due to various sleeping disorders, one of which is sleep apnea.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person’s body is not able to breathe as it should while sleeping. The respiratory system tends to “pause” in between breaths, whether caused by a physical blockage of the breathing passages (Obstructive Sleep Apnea—OSA) or a misfire in the brain that neglects to tell the body to breathe (Central Sleep Apnea—CSA). When this happens, the person’s body is started awake many times throughout the night into order to jar the body into breathing again.

Some of the more common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking occasionally with a feeling of choking or gasping for air
  • Insomnia or inability to sleep
  • Waking up with a headache
  • Mood changes, irritability, decreased libido, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate
  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • Sleepiness during activities such as driving
  • Waking up with a dry or sore throat

Some people are more likely to be at risk for sleep apnea or other sleeping disorders for various reasons.

Risk factors for sleep apnea include:

  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Excessive weight or obesity
  • Being male (men are more likely than women to experience sleep apnea)
  • Older age
  • Smoking
  • Regular use of alcohol
  • Back sleeping
  • Large neck circumference (17” in men or 16” in women)
  • Swollen adenoids or tonsils (typically in children)
  • Breathing obstruction from conditions such as allergies, nasal congestion, or deviated septum
  • Use of sedatives or tranquilizers

Although the person with sleep apnea may not always be aware of or remember these breathing episodes, they very much inhibit the ability to get a good night’s rest. Sleep apnea has been connected to a variety of other dangerous health conditions such as stroke, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, weight gain, and other health problems. This is why it is very important for a person who has risk factors or symptoms to receive a proper diagnosis from a medical professional or sleep specialist.

Diagnosis of sleep apnea is accomplished through a sleep study, typically referred to as polysomnography. This type of testing usually takes place in a sleep clinic (resembling a hotel room more than a hospital room) where the patient is connected to various non-invasive testing apparatus in order to determine what is happening during their sleep cycles. Machines typically measure brain waves, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, blood pressure, leg and body movements, and rapid eye movement (REM).

Sleep Apnea and Bad Dreams

People who suffer from sleep apnea may find that they are having more bad dreams than most people. Although no one can say exactly why this is, experts have come performed research and tried to come up with some theories.

Some sleep experts believe that people with sleep apnea may experience more bad dreams could be due to the fact that their bodies are actually suffocating many times throughout the night. Because this is a negative, upsetting experience, this could translate into the brain incorporating this into dreams and turn into a nightmare.

One group of researchers conducted a study in which they compared people with OSA who suffer from nightmares to people with OSA who do not seem to have nightmares. In this comparison, it was determined that the people who remembered their bad dreams on a regular basis has significantly more severe cases of sleep apnea, meaning that they experience breathing episodes much more often than those without nightmares.

Some people have recognized night terrors as a sign of sleep apnea, particularly in children. Waking up gasping or choking, with the heart racing, is a very upsetting situation. The brain may be sensing that the body is at risk and the dreams or night terrors can possibly reflect this before your body completely wakes up.

Sleep Apnea and Vivid Dreams

One study published by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine noted that while people with obstructive sleep apnea may be less likely to remember their dreams, the dreams that they do remember seem to be more vivid and are likely much less pleasant. The explanation for this may be that REM sleep is less likely to occur because of constant sleep interruptions. But when REM sleep does occur, the stage is interrupted and causes the person with OSA to feel in distress and remember these dreams more vividly.

Treatments for Sleep Apnea and Dreams

The good news about sleep apnea is that treatment options are available that can restore your life back to normal, minimizing sleep interruptions and even restoring your dreams to less upsetting ones. While a small percentage of people with sleep apnea do need surgery to correct the problem, most people can be effectively cared for with non-invasive methods of treatment.

CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machines are the most common form of treatment for people with obstructive sleep apnea. This machine attaches to the body through a hose and mask and forces the airways to stay open while the person is sleeping. This means that the person can breathe readily, improving the oxygen levels and lowering the risky levels of carbon dioxide.

Some people find that using a CPAP machine can take some getting used to, and certain people have found that the use of a specialized sleep apnea pillow can help. A sleep apnea pillow is typically made from memory foam and has special slits to accommodate the straps that hold the mask onto the face. Because people who have sleep apnea are encouraged to sleep on the side instead of the back, some special sleep apnea pillows are designed to help people sleep comfortably on their sides.

Many people who have sleep apnea have found that treating it will not only make the symptoms go away, but it also reduces the number of bad dreams or night terrors that they remember.


Left undiagnosed and untreated, sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition that can result in a variety of health problems, and possibly even a shortened life span. If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, or a family member or roommate has noticed that you have been exhibiting some of the symptoms, then it is important to contact a medical professional right away.

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