In recent years it has become clear that proper sleep is critical to the health and wellbeing of the body. One of the most interruptive forms of sleep disturbance conditions that many Americans face today is sleep apnea. Linked to a variety of dangerous health conditions, such as heart disease and stroke, this sleeping disorder can sometimes be improved by introducing certain lifestyle changes including losing weight and changing sleep positions for sleep apnea.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common form of a sleeping disorder in which the airways are blocked during sleep. As the airways become blocked, the person’s body is unable to breathe normally which results in breathing “episodes” in which breathing ceases for several seconds, or even up to a minute, longer than normal. Adults with mild sleep apnea may experience between five and fifteen of these episodes every hour during sleep, while people with severe sleep apnea may experience 30 or more each hour.
These pauses in breathing leave the body and brain short on oxygen, causing the brain to trigger the body to wake up in order to activate the respiratory system and breathe again. Because of the lack of oxygen, the heart has to work harder in order to get the oxygen moving around to different parts of the body, ultimately increasing blood pressure and putting a significant strain on the heart. As the body experiences a startle reaction in order to wake up, stress hormones such as adrenaline are released into the bloodstream creating high levels of these hormones and putting strain on the body’s adrenal glands and lymphatic system.
In addition to these effects, a person with sleep apnea is exposed to various practical problems that are related to a chronic lack of sleep. Inability to concentrate can result in poor work performance, difficulty in learning situations, and strained relationships. Serious accidents and death may even occur for people who have sleep apnea because they have a strong likelihood of falling asleep during activity such as driving or operating other heavy machinery. Lack of sleep can also put a person at risk for serious health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart problems.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
If you think you might have sleep apnea but aren’t sure if you should pursue a diagnosis, consider these signs and symptoms:
- Loud snoring
- Forgetfulness and inability to concentrate
- Poor work performance
- High blood pressure
- Falling asleep during daytime activity such as driving
- Waking up often to go to the bathroom
- Sore throat or dry mouth upon waking
- Waking up with headaches
- Observed episodes of paused breathing
- Mood swings, depression, irritability, or relationship difficulties
- Low libido
- Insomnia, restlessness, or unrefreshing sleep
- Fatigue, sleepiness, or lack of energy during the day
- Occasionally waking up with coughing, gasping for air, or a sensation of choking
Sleep Apnea Sleeping Position Problem
It might seem a bit strange that a serious condition like sleep apnea could be affected by something as simple as the position in which a person sleeps. But it’s true. People who sleep on their backs are much more likely to have breathing problems in relationship to sleep apnea. This is due to the fact that gravity can draw down loose tissues in the neck and easily create blockage in the breathing passages that keep air from getting through.
If the neck is crunched up instead of extended during sleep, this might exacerbate the problem further. A partial blockage of the airway is likely to produce very loud snoring in many people, and a complete blockage of the airway will result in a sleep apnea episode in which the brain ultimately triggers the body to wake up so it can breathe.
Best Sleeping Position for Sleep Apnea
Most experts agree that the best sleeping position for those with sleep apnea is sleeping on the side. It is clear that sleeping on the back is not ideal as it often creates problems with breathing and promotes blockage of airways due to gravity. For people who are more comfortable sleeping on the backs, it may be helpful to prop up the head in order to extend the neck and encourage proper breathing.
Some people with sleep apnea may feel more comfortable sleeping on their stomachs, but this is actually not ideal either. Although sleeping on the stomach may mitigate some of the gravity problems related to breathing blockages and snoring, it also requires that the head be turned to either side in order to breathe. And this type of position can create breathing problems of its own, as well as leading to neck soreness and stiffness.
Truly the best sleeping position for sleep apnea is sleeping on the side. This position allows the breathing passages to remain open and keeps the body in a position that avoids undue strain and stress on muscles.
Help with Sleeping on Your Side
The difficult thing about changing sleeping positions is that you are not awake so it’s difficult to reprogram your body and brain to adjust. While you may fall asleep in the ideal position, if you move while you are sleeping then it’s likely that you will changes positions back to one that is less-than ideal—often to your back. Some people may find that a firm, thick pillow is helpful to provide support for the neck when sleeping on the side.
People who are serious about retraining their bodies to sleep in a different position (called positional sleep therapy) may need the help of a specialized pillow or other type of tool. Certain wedge pillows are made of memory foam, keeping the neck extended and opening up the airways. One available tool is a sensor that accompanies the sleeping person in the bed. If the person turns over onto the back, the sensor is triggered and wakes the person enough to get them to move back into the needed sleeping position.
Sleep position for sleep apnea may seem like a small detail, but it can make a huge difference in the life and health of someone with a sleeping disorder. As with any medical problem, contact your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms or signs of sleep apnea. With the proper medical care, sleep apnea can often be treated in a non-invasive manner that will bring you back to a healthier, happier you.