• Sleep is an important bodily function that helps maintain physical and mental wellness.
  • Sleep apnea, a condition that affects breathing during sleep, negatively impacts your ability to get a full night of sleep.
  • Overcoming sleep apnea involves determining the right type of treatment for your needs.

What Happens During Sleep?

Everybody feels better after a good night’s sleep. Falling asleep allows your brain and body to recharge, improving your focus, energy and mood the next day.

Sleep is broken down into two categories: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. You start with non-REM sleep, which involves the transition from consciousness to sleep as your sleep progresses, you move into the REM stage.

Although your body is shut down during the REM cycle, your brain activity increases, which is what causes our dreams. This brain activity improves cognitive function when we’re awake. If you’re not able to get a consistent night of sleep, you’ll face consequences for it, which include fatigue, poor memory and bad judgment.

What is it?

One of the main causes of lack of sleep is a disorder called sleep apnea. It disrupts sleep by not letting you breathe properly. The main types of sleep apnea include:

  • Obstructive
  • Central
  • Complex

The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea which blocks airflow when the throat muscles relax during sleep. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the brain to control breathing. Complex sleep apnea is a combination of the two.

Symptoms and Effects

There are several potential reasons you might not be sleeping well. There are some symptoms to help you discover if sleep apnea is the cause, such as:

  • Loud snoring
  • Gasping for air
  • Dry mouth
  • Morning headache
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Limb twitching or restless legs when trying to sleep
  • Getting up to go to the bathroom at night (nocturia)

Sleep deprivation negatively affects your physical and mental wellness. Cognitive side effects include weak memory, mood swings and trouble concentrating. Physical side effects include a weaker immune system, high blood pressure and weight gain. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated in 2017, 91,000 collisions occurred because of drowsy driving. You may be drowsy driving and it might not even be your fault.

How do I know if I have it?

If you or someone you know has any of the symptoms mentioned above, the first step is to speak to your dentist or physician. They will ask a series of questions and if it sounds like you may have sleep apnea, they will recommend a test be taken. There are styles of testing: one where you go to a sleep center and stay overnight and another where you take home equipment and sleep in your own bed. Once the test is analyzed, your healthcare provider can give you the next steps. Keep in mind that physicians will typically not mention treatment with an oral device as they are not equipped to provide that service.

Treatments

If you’re struggling with sleep apnea, don’t fret–there are solutions. One of the most popular at-home options is wearing a sleep apnea mouthpiece called a Mandibular Advancement Device, which brings your jaw forward to open your throat more and let you breathe easily during sleep. They are designed for mild to moderate cases of obstructive sleep apnea, and can also relieve snoring. Your dentist can make and adjust a custom fitted device to help you get a better night’s rest. 

Another option is a CPAP machine (continuous positive airway pressure), in which air pressure is delivered from a machine to a mask worn over your face. It is designed for more severe cases.

The sleep apnea treatment you choose depends on the severity of your case and your preferences. CPAP machines tend to be more effective, but wearing a mask can be uncomfortable and claustrophobic. They are also difficult to travel with. Oral devices for sleep apnea are less burdensome and more comfortable, but aren’t designed for those with severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea or those with central or complex sleep apnea.

If you’re confused about which treatment is best for your case, talk to your dentist. The best treatment for one person may not be the best for another. You can also ask Dr. Cho about his sleep apnea journey. He discovered he has mild sleep apnea and treated himself and currently sleeps much better.