Sleep apnea - pauses in breathing during sleep

Sleep apnea describes the repeated brief cessation of breathing during sleep and not only disturbs our recovery at night, but also harms our health and performance during the day. Here you can find out why breathing stops at night and what you can do to sleep well despite the breathing problems.

Table of contents:

  1. What is sleep apnea?
  2. What happens with sleep apnea?
  3. Causes: how does sleep apnea develop?
  4. Symptoms & consequences of sleep apnea
  5. Treatment and help against sleep apnea
  6. Conclusion

Sleep disorders due to breathing irregularities and disorders are widespread and affect not only the duration but also the quality of our sleep. More than 100 million people worldwide suffer from what is known as sleep apnea and the consequences of the disturbed sleep it causes.

1. What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea syndrome is a serious sleep-related breathing disorder and describes the brief cessation of breathing during sleep. Again and again, up to several hundred times during the night, there are short breathing pauses that last from a few seconds to a few minutes and interrupt sleep. Affected people wake up again and again, often unnoticed, and suffer from a less restful sleep. Due to the disturbed breathing, sleep apnea is usually accompanied by pronounced snoring.

2. What happens with sleep apnea?

With healthy breathing, air flows through our nose or oropharynx and easily passes through the upper respiratory tract. In the case of sleep apnea, on the other hand, the airways are so narrowed or blocked that the resistance is too great and breathing becomes difficult or not possible at all.

By stopping breathing, the oxygen concentration in the blood drops and the organs and the brain are not sufficiently supplied with oxygen. This puts the body under stress and causes what is known as an arousal, a reaction in the central nervous system that causes our brain to wake us up to prevent choking during our sleep. In this way, the natural sleep structure is repeatedly interrupted night after night and our sleep no longer brings the much-needed rest.

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snoring vs. Sleep apnea

Snoring, which is actually harmless at first, occurs when the breathing air encounters resistance due to a narrowing of the airways and we have to exhale and inhale more. The air then flows through the pharynx at increased pressure and causes the soft tissue (such as the tongue, soft palate or uvula) to vibrate audibly. However, if the airways close even further, no more air can pass through the upper airways and sleep apnea, which is harmful to health, develops.

You can find simple tips against annoying breathing noises and snoring at night in this article.

3. Causes: How does sleep apnea develop?

Depending on the exact cause, a distinction is made between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea and occurs when the muscles in the upper airways relax during sleep, narrowing and blocking the pharynx. This happens, for example, through the natural muscle relaxation at night, but is also favored by certain risk factors. In addition to age and certain physical characteristics (narrow airways, small lower jaw or large tonsils), these also include previous illnesses, overweight, smoking or alcohol consumption before going to bed.

The cause of central sleep apnea, on the other hand, does not lie in a proper blockage of the airways and the disrupted flow of respiratory air, but in a malfunction of the brain. In central sleep apnea, the brain does not send any control signals to the respiratory muscles during sleep, so breathing stops and pauses. However, this form of sleep apnea is less common and affects only about every tenth sleep apnea sufferer.

4. Symptoms & Consequences of Sleep Apnea

Untreated sleep apnea damages the quality of life and, according to studies, also shortens the general life expectancy. The lack of oxygen supply and the disruption of the natural sleep architecture lead to pronounced daytime tiredness, headaches and forgetfulness, concentration problems or mood swings in those affected. Due to the disturbed deep sleep, the energy stores in the body and brain cannot be filled sufficiently, resulting in lack of energy and poor performance.

Frequent awakening from sleep also puts the body under stress and puts a considerable strain on the cardiovascular and nervous systems. This promotes the development of high blood pressure or diabetes, increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and strokes, and the risk of accidents is about three times higher than in people with healthy sleep.

Symptoms of sleep apnea at a glance

Physical consequences
Psychological consequences

• Headache

• Lack of drive and energy

• daytime sleepiness

• Increased risk of stroke & cardiovascular disease

• Higher accident risk

• Hypertension

• Diabetes

• Difficulty concentrating

• Forgetfulness

• Nervousness

• Mood swings up to depression

5. Treatment & help against sleep apnea

In the case of obstructive sleep apnea, the goal of treatment is of course to prevent narrowing and eventual blockage of the upper airways so that air can pass through the throat and flow easily into the lungs even during sleep. Which is the best method to avoid the breathing pauses depends on the individual cause. In milder cases, it can already help to minimize typical risk factors. For example, alcohol and smoking can be avoided, obesity regulated and a healthy sleeping posture supported with the help of a suitable pillow. In more severe cases, the use of special sleep masks or bite splints, which open the airways and lead to free breathing during sleep, has proven itself.

Unlike snoring, sleep apnea is a serious condition. Anyone who suffers from nocturnal breathing pauses should therefore always seek advice from a doctor and seek professional help in order to improve their own health and sleep in the long term.

6. Conclusion

  • Sleep apnea is a widespread breathing-related sleep disorder and refers to the repeated occurrence of pauses in breathing during sleep.
  • Sleep apnea disrupts sleep, impairs daily performance and has numerous negative health consequences such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

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