What is obstructive sleep apnea?
Try and hold your breath. You probably take a big breath in and hold your breath for as long as you can. Now, do the opposite. Breath out all the air possible, then hold your breath. How long can you go before your body sets off the “I need air!” alarms? Much shorter than the first time, right? If you had been sleeping while doing this, you would have exhibited sleep apnea.
Normal sleep is characterized by normal breathing (hopefully through your nose) without stop. You will go through the stages of sleep and get down into the deep REM sleep, which is the healing restful sleep. After good sleep, you feel rested and awake.
Sleep with obstructive sleep apnea will be punctuated by something in your body (tongue or tissue) blocking your airway during the night. The flow of oxygen to your body via the breathing pathways stops. Your body does ok for a little bit, but the alarms start to go off. Your blood oxygen levels drop, and your blood pressure goes up to compensate. Your body is telling you to get more oxygen in, but you are still asleep. The warning bells continue to sound in your body, and your brain tells you to make an effort to breath. You try to breath, but the airway is still blocked. Your chest and stomach move up and down, but no air is coming in. It may have been a minute and a half by now. Your oxygen level drop even more, and microscopic cell damage starts in your circulatory system. Finally, your body has had enough and your brain wakes you up telling you to “Breathe!!!!! You wake up gasping for air. Your oxygen levels go back up and your body returns to normal, except you fall back to sleep and the process starts all over again.
In most cases your tongue or tissues block the airway, and this story can repeat over and over throughout the night. This constant sleep wake cycle never allows your body to truly rest and your body has been running a pretend marathon all night.
You wake up exhausted and will probably fall asleep sitting in your chair at lunch time. Often, you will adapt and just consider this normal, but this cycle will put you in a much greater risk for heart attack, stroke, or dying too early.