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Chasing a Good Night’s Rest: Remedies for Sleep Apnea

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Sleep apnea is a condition that interrupts the normal sleep cycle. When breathing patterns become irregular, stopping and restarting throughout the night, the lungs can’t get enough air to function, causing chronic snoring or gasping.1What is sleep apnea? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health. Updated March 24, 2022. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea Blood oxygen levels may drop, triggering hypoxemia. Sleep apnea increases the risk of heart disease, depression, metabolic disorders, and impaired brain function.2Osman AM, Carter SG, Carberry JC, Eckert DJ. Obstructive sleep apnea: current perspectives. Nat Sci Sleep. 2018;10:21-34. https://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S124657 Even more troubling is the significant number of undiagnosed cases. Many people who have sleep apnea don’t know it.

Screening for Sleep Apnea

Between 21% and 59% of the general population struggle with sleep apnea, making it the most common sleep disorder.3Cumpston E, Chen P. Sleep apnea syndrome. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; July 18, 2023. A 2023 study found that while one in five people was highly likely to have the most common form of sleep apnea, only 3.5% were treated for the condition.4Balagny P, Vidal-Petiot E, Renuy A, et al. Prevalence, treatment, and determinants of obstructive sleep apnoea and its symptoms in a population-based French cohort. ERJ Open Res. 2023;9(3):00053-2023. https://doi.org/10.1183/23120541.00053-2023

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, the most common, and central sleep apnea. Loud snoring, gasping, choking while asleep, and daytime sleepiness are common symptoms.5Jin J. Screening for obstructive sleep apnea. JAMA. 2022;328(19):1988. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2022.20142 With severe sleep apnea, a person may experience excessive sleepiness during the day, headaches, dry mouth, irritability, and lack of focus.6Suni E, Singh A. Sleep apnea: What it is, its risk factors, its health impacts, and how it can be treated. Sleep Foundation. Accessed August 9, 2023. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-apnea

Various questionnaires and screening tools help diagnose sleep apnea. Physicians may examine body mass index, neck circumference, and blood pressure. In some cases, patients participate in a sleep study, where tests monitor heart rate, blood oxygen levels, airflow, and breathing patterns.

If left untreated, low blood oxygen levels caused by airway obstruction can increase the risk of cardiovascular conditions and other diseases.7Harris E. How sleep apnea contributes to cardiovascular disease. JAMA. 2023;330(9):798. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2023.13939 Cognitive decline is also a concern, as impaired sleep may affect memory, attention, and verbal ability.8Bilyukov RG, Nikolov MS, Pencheva VP, et al. Cognitive Impairment and Affective Disorders in Patients With Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:357. Published 2018 Aug 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00357

Risk Factors

There are multiple risk factors for sleep apnea:9Sleep apnea causes and risk factors. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health. Updated March 24, 2022. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea/causes

  • Age: Risk increases with age, when fatty tissue can build up in the neck and tongue.
  • Genetics: Sleep apnea is often an inherited condition. It’s essential to know your family history.
  • Gender: Sleep apnea is more common among men than among women.
  • Hormone levels: Underactive thyroid or high levels of insulin or growth hormones increases risk.
  • Large tonsils and a thick neck: These features may cause the upper airways to narrow.
  • Obesity: Increased fat deposits in the neck may block the upper airways.
  • Lifestyle habits: Smoking and drinking alcohol raise risk.
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Medical Treatment

Clearer breathing is the goal of sleep apnea treatment and may involve continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to open the upper airways. In clinical studies, CPAP machines reduce the frequency of respiratory events and lessen daytime sleepiness while improving blood pressure and overall quality of life. Unfortunately, patients with severe sleep apnea don’t consistently use a CPAP machine, citing discomfort and fear of claustrophobia. Alternative treatment options and a more integrative approach could alleviate symptoms.

Natural Treatments for Sleep Apnea

Several natural remedies may help people with sleep apnea who cannot tolerate CPAP treatment. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine recommend oral appliances (or breathing devices) to improve sleep quality. These appliances fit over the teeth and support the jaw, keeping the upper airway open.10Ramar K, Dort LC, Katz SG, et al. Clinical practice guideline for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea and snoring with oral appliance therapy: An update for 2015. J Clin Sleep Med. 2015;11(7):773-827. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.4858

People who struggle with sleep apnea may benefit from positional therapy (sleeping on their side). Although CPAP addresses apnea more effectively than positional therapy, patients are likelier to adopt a side-sleeping position and stick with it.11Srijithesh PR, Aghoram R, Goel A, Dhanya J. Positional therapy for obstructive sleep apnoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019;5(5):CD010990. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD010990.pub2

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Lifestyle changes also make a difference when treating sleep apnea. Key lifestyle factors include maintaining a healthy weight, addressing nasal congestion, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and improving sleeping habits. Diet plays an essential role. In a 2020 randomized clinical trial, the Mediterranean diet improved symptom severity, regardless of CPAP use or weight loss.12Georgoulis M, Yiannakouris N, Kechribari I, et al. The effectiveness of a weight-loss Mediterranean diet/lifestyle intervention in the management of obstructive sleep apnea: Results of the “MIMOSA” randomized clinical trial. Clin Nutr. 2021;40(3):850-859. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2020.08.037

When it comes to herbal remedies, inhaling essential oils such as lavender, chamomile, ylang-ylang, cedarwood, and others may lead to better sleep. A review of 15 sleep studies found these oils helped alleviate mild symptoms.13Arzi A, Sela L, Green A, Givaty G, Dagan Y, Sobel N. The influence of odorants on respiratory patterns in sleep. Chem Senses. 2010;35(1):31-40. https://doi.org/10.1093/chemse/bjp079

Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that may have efficacy for people with sleep disorders. According to a 2020 review of nine randomized clinical trials, acupuncture improved symptoms and sleep quality for patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea.14Wang L, Xu J, Zhan Y, Pei J. Acupuncture for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Biomed Res Int. 2020;2020:6972327. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/6972327

The Bottom Line

Sleep apnea is a condition that often goes undiagnosed. With direct links to serious illnesses like heart disease and poor brain function, it is crucial to evaluate for this common sleep disorder. If you suspect sleep apnea, consider meeting with a naturopathic doctor who specializes in whole-health treatment approaches. There are natural ways to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and enjoy all the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Footnotes

  • 1
    What is sleep apnea? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health. Updated March 24, 2022. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea
  • 2
    Osman AM, Carter SG, Carberry JC, Eckert DJ. Obstructive sleep apnea: current perspectives. Nat Sci Sleep. 2018;10:21-34. https://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S124657
  • 3
    Cumpston E, Chen P. Sleep apnea syndrome. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; July 18, 2023.
  • 4
    Balagny P, Vidal-Petiot E, Renuy A, et al. Prevalence, treatment, and determinants of obstructive sleep apnoea and its symptoms in a population-based French cohort. ERJ Open Res. 2023;9(3):00053-2023. https://doi.org/10.1183/23120541.00053-2023
  • 5
    Jin J. Screening for obstructive sleep apnea. JAMA. 2022;328(19):1988. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2022.20142
  • 6
    Suni E, Singh A. Sleep apnea: What it is, its risk factors, its health impacts, and how it can be treated. Sleep Foundation. Accessed August 9, 2023. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-apnea
  • 7
    Harris E. How sleep apnea contributes to cardiovascular disease. JAMA. 2023;330(9):798. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2023.13939
  • 8
    Bilyukov RG, Nikolov MS, Pencheva VP, et al. Cognitive Impairment and Affective Disorders in Patients With Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:357. Published 2018 Aug 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00357
  • 9
    Sleep apnea causes and risk factors. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health. Updated March 24, 2022. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea/causes
  • 10
    Ramar K, Dort LC, Katz SG, et al. Clinical practice guideline for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea and snoring with oral appliance therapy: An update for 2015. J Clin Sleep Med. 2015;11(7):773-827. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.4858
  • 11
    Srijithesh PR, Aghoram R, Goel A, Dhanya J. Positional therapy for obstructive sleep apnoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019;5(5):CD010990. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD010990.pub2
  • 12
    Georgoulis M, Yiannakouris N, Kechribari I, et al. The effectiveness of a weight-loss Mediterranean diet/lifestyle intervention in the management of obstructive sleep apnea: Results of the “MIMOSA” randomized clinical trial. Clin Nutr. 2021;40(3):850-859. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2020.08.037
  • 13
    Arzi A, Sela L, Green A, Givaty G, Dagan Y, Sobel N. The influence of odorants on respiratory patterns in sleep. Chem Senses. 2010;35(1):31-40. https://doi.org/10.1093/chemse/bjp079
  • 14
    Wang L, Xu J, Zhan Y, Pei J. Acupuncture for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Biomed Res Int. 2020;2020:6972327. https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/6972327

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About The Author(s)

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Our dedicated content team of professional staff writers represents decades of experience covering essential natural health topics in an accessible, evidence-based, and engaging way. Guided by a shared passion for holistic well-being, each and every one of our writers strives to empower our readers to take charge of their health.

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