Sleep apnea is a potentially serious medical condition that can lead to heart problems if ignored. Therefore, it's best not to delay setting an appointment to be checked by your doctor. You’ll want their expert advice and a custom plan tailored to treat your specific sleep issues. However, keep reading if you’re curious about lifestyle changes and natural ways to improve your sleep apnea.
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Sleep apnea is a type of disorder that interrupts your breathing for brief periods as you sleep. This condition may cause you to get insufficient oxygen, which could cause you to gasp for air and wake up. You may or may not remember these sleep interruptions in the morning. Common symptoms of sleep apnea are:
Waking with a headache
Dry mouth or sore throat
Waking up short of breath
If you have undiagnosed sleep apnea, you may not know about all the interruptions to your breathing and think you're still experiencing a regular sleep cycle. Sleep apnea can sound a lot like loud snoring.
Undiagnosed sleep apnea, in particular, is directly linked to an increased risk in metabolic and cardiovascular health.¹
There are two main types of sleep apnea, which include:
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
The most common form of sleep apnea; obstructive sleep apnea happens when your tongue blocks air from getting to the back of the throat.
Central sleep apnea (CSA)
A less common type of sleep apnea; central sleep apnea occurs when your brain isn't sending the right signals to the muscles involved in breathing.
As you may know, traditional treatment for sleep apnea usually involves wearing an assistive breathing device, called a CPAP—which stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” A CPAP machine is generally very effective, but some people find it uncomfortable.
You may be able to improve your sleep apnea by making lifestyle changes or by wearing your CPAP and following these health tips. Here are some ways to improve your sleep hygiene and possibly improve your sleep disorder:
1. Keep a healthy weight
Doctors often recommend that overweight individuals with sleep apnea try a weight loss program. Excess weight, especially in your upper body, can increase your risk of airway obstruction. Reducing any pressure on your windpipe can decrease symptoms of sleep apnea.
Research finds that even modest weight loss in individuals with obesity could eliminate their need for long-term CPAP therapy or upper airway surgery.²
2. Reduce nasal congestion
If you have congestion or sinus problems, solving that could help decrease your snoring and improve your airflow, allowing you to breathe more comfortably at night.
A few natural remedies include nasal irrigation (using a sinus spray or saline solution in a Neti pot), staying hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, and avoiding foods that may cause congestion, such as dairy products.
3. Change your sleep position
It may sound like a small change, but sleeping on your side instead of your back could considerably decrease your sleep apnea symptoms. A 2006 study showed over half of obstructive sleep apnea cases were dependent on sleep position.³
Other studies found that sleeping on your back can make your symptoms worse. In certain adults, breathing returned to normal if they could sleep on their side.⁴
4. Avoid sedatives
If you take sedatives or consume alcohol, speak with your doctor about the potential impact on your sleep apnea. Anything that relaxes your throat muscles could disrupt your breathing. For example, antihistamines, benzodiazepines, opiates, or sleeping pills.
Exercise often leads to weight loss, which can help reduce the severity of sleep apnea.⁵ It can also help with daytime sleepiness and increase both oxygen circulation and sleep efficiency.
6. Use a humidifier
Humidifiers add moisture to the air. When the air is dry, it can irritate your respiratory system and your body⁶. Using a humidifier will help:
Open up your airways
Encourage clearer breathing
You might want to add some essential oils to your humidifiers like peppermint, lavender, or eucalyptus oil for added benefit.
Finally, be sure to follow the humidifier manufacturer’s cleaning instructions to avoid harboring bacteria or mold.
7. Use oral appliances
While behavioral changes and CPAP are usually initial therapy, other devices are also available. For example, the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine supports using oral appliances as sleep apnea therapy.
According to the ADA, a custom-fit device could help restore your alertness, improve sleep, and revitalize your health.⁷ Similar to a mouthguard, these custom solutions help reposition the jaw and move your tongue and soft palate forward to reduce the blockage in the back of your throat.
Oral appliances can be anything from low-cost, OTC (over-the-counter) choices to custom-fit devices your dentist creates.
Prop your head up: Use a cervical pillow or foam wedge to elevate your body from your waist or elevate the head of your bed several inches.⁸
Quit smoking: Smoking increases fluid retention and inflammation in your upper airway and throat, contributing to sleep apnea.⁹ People who smoke are more likely to have OSA than those who don’t.
Avoid caffeinated beverages within a couple of hours of going to bed.¹⁰
You should visit your doctor if you're experiencing any of the following symptoms:
Chronic loud snoring
Excessive daytime sleepiness
Unexplained symptoms like a sore throat or headaches in the morning
Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
Stoppages of breathing while sleeping that someone else witnesses
Waking up with choking, gasping sounds, or shortness of breath
If you think you might be experiencing sleep apnea symptoms, your doctor might recommend that you see a sleep expert. Sleep specialists go through specific training and pass an exam to become board-certified through the American Board of Sleep Medicine.
Sleep professionals typically specialize in one condition, like sleep apnea. Some may also be ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialists.
Certain lifestyle changes and home remedies can help manage and reduce sleep apnea symptoms. However, you shouldn't ignore traditional treatments, such as CPAP therapy, which is the most successful and common treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea. In some cases, surgery may be required.
Talk with your doctor about your options before you pursue any natural home remedy or technique. Some people find it challenging to sleep with a CPAP machine, while others adjust quite easily.
If your doctor recommends CPAP treatment, they will work to find you the right mask, machine, and pressure settings to maximize your comfort. If your symptoms start to become worse, seek medical attention immediately.
The Dangers of Uncontrolled Sleep Apnea | John Hopkins Medicine
Oral Appliance Therapy | American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine
Sleep Apnea | The Sleep Foundation
Caffeine and Sleep | The Sleep Foundation