Obstructive sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that causes short pauses in your breathing while you sleep. It is caused by the muscles in your throat relaxing too much and partially or completely blocking your airways. This can stop your breathing for 10 to 30 seconds at a time, which can disrupt your sleep and lead to morning headaches, fatigue and other symptoms.
Obstructive sleep apnea is one of three types of sleep apnea. It is the most common type. The other types of sleep apnea are central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea. Unlike obstructive sleep apnea that is caused by a blockage in your airway, these types of sleep apnea are caused by the brain and respiratory muscles not functioning properly.
Sleep apnea can prevent you from getting a good night's sleep, which is important for your physical and mental health. People with sleep apnea often suffer from impaired concentration and daytime sleepiness, and are at risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and depression.
Your healthcare provider may recommend using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral or dental appliances or even surgery to help treat your sleep apnea symptoms, but lifestyle changes can also help.
Try our 7 tips to help reduce your obstructive sleep apnea symptoms.
1. Lose weight
Being overweight or obese is a common risk factor for sleep apnea. Carrying excess weight, especially around your neck or upper body, may narrow your upper airways when you lie down and increase the risk of your airways collapsing during sleep. Excess weight around your abdomen may also cause a reduction in your lung volume.
Losing even a small amount of weight can help to open up your airways, reduce pressure on your lungs and improve the strength of your airway muscles, allowing you to breathe easier and potentially avoid the need for CPAP therapy
If you’re struggling to lose weight, talk to your healthcare provider or dietitian about changes you can make to your diet. Healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, have been shown to aid weight loss.
2. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can improve your sleep apnea symptoms. As well as helping you lose weight, exercise can reduce daytime sleepiness, improve your oxygen intake, boost your energy levels, and improve the quality of your sleep.
It can also help to reduce fluid retention in your legs, which can occur if you don't move enough. Fluid buildup in your legs can cause problems if you have sleep apnea because when you lie down to sleep the fluid can shift to your neck, which can put extra pressure on your airways.
During exercise the respiratory muscles work harder, which helps to open up your upper airways, improve muscle tone, reduce muscle fatigue and prevent your airways from collapsing while you sleep.
Exercise also has the added benefit of strengthening your heart muscles and reducing the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, which are associated with sleep apnea.
Aerobic exercise, resistance training, and yoga are good options for strengthening the upper respiratory system and improving oxygen consumption.
3. Avoid sleeping on your back
Sleeping on your side, rather than on your back in a supine position, can help to significantly reduce the number of apnea episodes - or pauses in your breathing - you have while asleep.
If sleeping on your back worsens your symptoms try using a positional sleep tool like a foam wedge or pillow to keep you from rolling over onto your back.
If you have trouble sleeping on your side then raising the head of your bed to a 60-degree angle may also help with reducing apnea symptoms.
4. Avoid alcohol
Alcohol can relax the muscles in your airways, interfering with your breathing and causing you to snore. When and how much you drink can affect your sleep apnea symptoms. Drinking more alcohol and drinking around bedtime has especially been linked to worsening sleep apnea symptoms.
Avoid or limit your use of alcohol if you have sleep apnea to help improve your symptoms.
Sedative medications can have a similar effect to alcohol, so it’s also recommended to avoid sleeping pills and other sedatives as well.
5. Quit smoking
Stopping smoking can improve your sleep quality and may help your sleep apnea symptoms.
It is thought that smoking may make sleep apnea symptoms worse by:
- Reducing the amount of quality sleep you get. Nicotine and nicotine withdrawal during sleep are thought to have a negative impact on sleep quality
- Affecting your ability to wake up during an episode of apnea
- Reducing your ability to restore your airway after an episode of apnea
- Causing inflammation and swelling in your airways
Talk to your healthcare provider about the best way to quit smoking for you.
6. Start doing oropharyngeal exercises
Oropharyngeal exercises are mouth and throat exercises designed to strengthen and improve the tone of your pharyngeal or throat muscles, to help improve snoring and sleep apnea symptoms. They are sometimes also called myofunctional therapy.
These exercises target the area containing the back of your tongue, sides of your throat, your tonsils, adenoids and the muscular part of the roof of your mouth called your soft palate.
Spending 10 minutes 2 to 3 times a day to do oropharyngeal exercises can help to significantly reduce your neck circumference, daytime sleepiness, snoring intensity, the number of sleep disturbances you have, improve your oxygen saturation and sleep quality. Like with other forms of exercise, it may take weeks to months for you to see the full benefit of performing these exercises.
Try the following tongue exercises two to three times a day to increase the strength of your tongue, soft palate and throat muscles:
- Tongue slides. Start with the tip of your tongue against the back of your top teeth and slowly slide your tongue backwards along the roof of your mouth. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
- Tongue stretches. While looking up at the ceiling, poke your tongue out as far as you can and try to touch your chin with the tip of your tongue. Hold the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds. Gradually work to increase the length of time you can hold the stretch if this is difficult. Repeat 5 times.
- Tongue push ups. Press your entire tongue upwards against the roof of your mouth, holding your tongue in place for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
- Tongue push downs. Hold the tip of your tongue against your lower front teeth and push the back of your tongue flat against the floor of your mouth. Hold your tongue on the floor of your mouth for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
Try the following mouth exercises two to three times a day to help you hold your mouth closed while breathing:
- Cheek pull. Place a hooked finger inside your mouth and use it to gently pull your cheek to the side. At the same time use your facial muscles to pull your cheek back in. Repeat 10 times on each side.
Try the following to increase the strength of your facial muscles, throat muscles and jaw:
- Lip movements. Purse your lips together tightly to close your mouth, then open your mouth and lips to relax your jaw. Repeat 10 times.
If you’re looking for something a bit different, try playing the didgeridoo, an indigenous Australian woodwind instrument. Playing the didgeridoo requires using circular breathing techniques and movements of the soft palate, cheeks, lips and tongue muscles. Playing the didgeridoo can help to strengthen the oropharyngeal muscles and reduce the risk of them collapsing during sleep.
A small study has found that regularly playing the didgeridoo significantly reduces daytime sleepiness and snoring in people with mild or moderate sleep apnea. And as an added bonus it also reduces the number of times the person's sleep apnea disrupted their partners sleep. Just four mouth of didgeridoo playing was found to reduce the severity of sleep apnea symptoms.
7. Get rid of nasal congestion
Nasal congestion can increase your risk of sleep apnea. If you’re suffering from nasal congestion, try using a humidifier during the night to increase the moisture in the air or a saline nasal rinse or spray to help clear your sinuses. Check with your healthcare provider about what remedy would be best for you.
Lifestyle changes can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms. Making these changes may enable you to avoid the need for other sleep apnea treatments, but many of these solutions can also be used alongside the sleep apnea treatment recommended by your healthcare provider.
Talk to your doctor to discuss the right treatment for you. If your symptoms progress see your healthcare professional as soon as possible.
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