The Hypnos guide to Sleep Apnoea
If you’re one of the 4 million people in the UK who suffers from sleep apnoea then for you, getting that all- important shut eye could be anything but restful. This disorder can cause sleepers suffering with it to repeatedly stop and start breathing throughout the night and wake up gasping for air, both of which lead to fragmented sleep and chronic daytime sleepiness.
Here, our sleep expert, Natalie Penicotte-Collier, who has pioneered Breathwork and MBSR therapies to support those with the condition, talks about sleep apnoea and ways you can combat the problem.
Disturbed sleep, such as that caused by sleep apnoea, can make you feel groggy and tired during the day, impacting your daily life and activities, such as everyday chores, work and even your ability to drive. Indeed, stats show that if you suffer from sleep apnoea, you’re 12 times more likely to be involved in a car accident. With this in mind, it’s important to understand the condition and what you can do to help ease it and get that all-important shut-eye.
What are the different types of sleep apnoea?
The most common form of sleep apnoea tends to be ‘Obstructive Sleep Apnoea’ otherwise known as OSA for short. This type of condition occurs when the muscles that support the throat, including your tongue and soft palate, temporarily relax. When this happens, your airway can narrow or even close, stopping the airflow in your body and causing you to wake up promptly. OSA tends to be more common in those over the age of 40 and generally twice as many men are diagnosed than women are.
People with this type of apnoea might suffer from loud or laboured breathing when they sleep, finding themselves gasping for air or snorting. The condition can even make you feel as though you’re choking – all very unpleasant sensations and not the experience you want when you’re trying to rest and repair your body and mind.
There’s also ‘Central Sleep Apnoea’ or CSA, where the brain fails to send the correct signal to your body to inhale, causing you to miss a breath or indeed multiple breaths in succession. Finally, there’s ‘Mixed Sleep Apnoea’, which is a combination of the two sleep disorders outlined above.
What can you do to help the condition?
The good news is there are a few things you can do to help yourself cope with this tiring condition. For example, smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol before you sleep can worsen the disorder and even increase the unpleasant sensations associated with it. This is because both these times can actually relax the upper airway muscles even more, so make sure you limit alcohol and cigarette intake, especially before bedtime.
In some cases, people who are overweight may also find they’re suffering from the condition quite badly. Research has shown that those who are obese are more likely to have extra tissue in the back of their throat which can block the air coming into their lungs whilst they sleep. In cases where weight is a factor, studies have shown that losing around 10% of body weight can have a significant impact on the symptoms and feelings associated with this condition.
It’s also interesting to note that there have been connections made between high blood pressure and sleep apnoea, with both going hand in hand. It’s known that having high blood pressure can worsen the disorder, but it’s also believed that sleep apnoea can predispose you to high blood pressure, causing sudden drops in blood oxygen levels whilst you’re sleeping and putting extra strain on the cardiovascular system.
Ensuring you have a balanced, healthy diet that’s low in cholesterol and saturated fat, can help with efforts to minimise high blood pressure, which may also then indirectly have a positive impact on your sleep.
Sleeping aids, such as a CPAP machine (which stands for continuous positive airway pressure) can do wonders for those with this debilitating and unpleasant condition.
The machine gently increases air pressure in your throat so that you can breathe more easily and it doesn’t relax, collapse or close when you breathe in as you’re sleeping. For effective treatment, the CPAP equipment must be used nightly. Because of this, selecting the most comfortable equipment and mask for you is really important to ensure you’re sleep isn’t hindered any further than it already is thanks to the affliction.
There’s also something called a mandibular advancement device that can aid those experiencing this sleep problem. It looks a bit like a gum shield or mouth guard, but you wear it whilst you’re sleeping to help keep your airway open and ensure breathing becomes easier. It might be low-tech but it’s surprisingly effective!
Mindfulness body practises
Meditation and certain yogic breathing practices can have profound effects on the autonomic nervous system by building the strength of your breathing. As a sleep well-being therapist, I champion MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) & MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) specifically for issues relating to sleep health, which includes practicing mindfulness modalities (such as gentle walking, yoga and meditations) and introspective breathing.
Not only can Mindfulness MBSR techniques, such as meditation and breathing exercises help curb the anxiety related to sleep apnoea, but it also show some promising benefits for improving the symptoms specific to this sleep-related disease. Mindfulness-based therapies have been shown to help sleep efficiency and sleep duration which is beneficial for all people who have sleep-related issues in general.
Body strengthening exercises
There’s also circulatory breath therapy that those with this condition can practise. This involves combining orofacial exercises with throat exercises to strengthen your tongue, soft palate, throat muscles and diaphragm.
This type of therapy involves breathing deeply and slowly from your abdomen and out through your nostrils. Each breath in should be the same length as the breath out and there should be no pauses between them.
These training techniques have been reported to reduce snoring and improve the quality of sleep, and as a by-product, also improve daytime drowsiness and alertness. In short, these types of alternative treatments show real promise as a cost-effective way of relieving this affliction.
What’s more, sleep apnoea has been linked with more than just a physical issue in the muscles we use to breathe – it’s also connected to our brains. As sleep apnoea can be caused by a lack of communication between the brain and the impulses that control breathing during sleep, mindfulness meditation can be used to strengthen these neural pathways and help control those impulses. By repeatedly practising breathing techniques, your body can actually create new neural connections and help the breathing system in your body to become stronger.
In addition, MBSR practices such as yogic breathing, can also benefit those who suffer from sleep apnoea by addressing oxygen levels within the body. Deep, meditative breathing helps improve the body’s ability to circulate and absorb oxygen and can create feelings of calmness before bedtime. Perfect if you’re disorder has caused anxiety before you put your head on to your pillow!
Tips for managing Sleep Apnoea
Create your own rest & relaxation techniques
If you suffer from this sleep affliction then your quality of sleep won’t be the best, so make sure you create time during the day to manage any feelings of stress or worry about going to bed later that night. Try doing some rest or relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or even consider booking a MBSR or MBCT course to help with this.
Other practises, such as Tai Chi or Yoga and Meditation Classes can really make a difference here too. I’m a big fan of, and teach something called IYBAM (pronounced “e-bam”), which is an integrated yoga meditation, to my patients as it encourages effective sleep health benefits.
Become a side sleeper
Side sleeping benefits CPAP users by using gravity to help open the airway, allowing a CPAP machine not to have to work so hard, and lowering AHI readings (which stands for Apnoea-Hypopnea Index) for the sleeper.
It’s worth noting that when it comes to sleeping positions, snoozing on your back is easily the worst for this type of disorder. Lying like this means gravity works against you and breathing can become harder and more laboured.
Stay committed to your sleep health
It might sound obvious but sticking with CPAP therapy, and not dipping in and out of using the machine, is the only way to truly recover from the impacts of quite severe sleep apnoea. Using this alongside mindfulness techniques will help to minimise the symptoms and provide you with a better quality of sleep.
Finally, the most important piece of advice I can give is to seek professional or medical help if you’re suffering from the disorder, or your symptoms appear to be getting worse. If you or a loved one suspect you have it, you should be tested as soon as possible. See your GP who will assess your symptoms and if needed, refer you to a sleep clinic or local sleep expert.
Enjoyed this read? Why not explore our sleep hub for more sleep advice.