Finding the right treatment, revamping your sleep routine, and adopting these healthy habits can help you fight fatigue.
There’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep, but if you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done.
More than 18 million adults in the United States are estimated to have sleep apnea, according to National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Although the condition is common, it often goes unrecognized and undiagnosed, says Jose Mendez, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Danbury Hospital, a part of Nuvance Health, in Southbury, Connecticut.
Sleep apnea is a condition in which the airway collapses intermittently at night, which causes people to stop breathing during their sleep. As a result, says Dr. Mendez, “people will enter into a lighter stage of sleep or completely wake up.” These awakenings can occur anywhere from five to more than 30 times per hour, according to the American Sleep Apnea Foundation.
Because people with sleep apnea tend to sleep poorly, they often have extreme daytime sleepiness. Not only are they sleepy, but they can also have trouble concentrating and experience mood problems such as depression.
“Sleep disruption also affects our hormones, namely by increasing ghrelin and reducing leptin, which can increase your appetite,” says Mendez. “It also negatively affects the immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses, such as colds and other viruses.”
What’s more, sleep apnea can increase the risk of cardiovascular complications too. For example, people who have daytime sleepiness from sleep apnea may be more likely to suffer from heart failure, a chronic condition where the heart can’t pump blood effectively, according to a study published in February 2019 in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
“During each arousal from sleep, your breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate increase, and your body is flooded with adrenaline, which is bad for your arteries and blood pressure,” says Mendez.
How to Spot the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
Snoring may be the most well-known symptom of sleep apnea, but it’s not the only one. Other symptoms include:
- Gasping or choking during sleep
- Experiencing pauses when you breathe at night (often, a partner will point this out)
- xcessive daytime sleepiness
- Waking up feeling unrefreshed
- Morning headaches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Mood issues
- Waking up throughout the night to go to the bathroom
If you have any of these symptoms, or have newly-diagnosed atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) and high blood pressure with or without daytime sleepiness, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the possibility of sleep apnea, says Mendez. Women often have insomnia but not snoring, and some people get tipped off that they might have a sleep problem because of an activity tracker like a Fitbit, he says. Bottom line: Be open to the possibility of sleep apnea, even if you don’t think you present in the “typical” way.
If your doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, he or she can then order you an at-home sleep apnea test, which eliminates the need to go to a sleep center to be analyzed, says Mendez. It’s far more convenient and accessible to patients. “Getting this test could potentially be a lifesaving decision,” he says.
How Treating Sleep Apnea Can Help You Feel More Energetic
If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, the right treatment can help you shake off daytime sleepiness. You may be advised to make lifestyle changes, or your doctor may recommend an oral or dental device (fitted through a qualified dentist) or ask you to use a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, a mask that helps keep your airway open overnight. The best choice for you depends on the severity of your sleep apnea, your insurance coverage, and the availability of experts in your area.
What you don’t want to do is self-treat sleep apnea with over-the-counter or online dental devices. These products are not only not recommended but can also cause harm, says Mendez. Certain dental products, for example, may damage your teeth, he says.
The good news: With proper treatment, you can expect your daytime sleepiness to fade and your energy levels to rise. “Symptoms improve quickly — in a matter of days to a week or two,” says Mendez. “For patients with severe apnea, just one night can be a dramatic change in how they feel and function during the day,” he says.
Lifestyle Habits to Increase Your Energy
In addition to seeking out a sleep apnea treatment, you can also fight next-day fatigue with these strategies.
Sleep on your side.
People with mild cases of sleep apnea may just need to sleep on their side, a position that helps keep the airway open, says Mendez. You can help prevent yourself from rolling onto your back at night by propping a body pillow against your back or even wearing a T-shirt with a tennis ball attached to the back.
“For a great majority of patients, losing weight tends to help with sleep apnea,” says Mendez, who explains that excess fat can obstruct the airway. Even losing a small amount of weight was shown to decrease people’s risk of having their sleep apnea worsen by 80 percent, according to research published in March 2014 in the journal Sleep Medicine; in some cases, weight loss may even cure mild sleep apnea. Weight loss won’t help everyone, of course, as thin and normal weight people get sleep apnea too.
Seek out insomnia treatments.
According to the NSF, sleep apnea is also linked to insomnia, a sleep disorder in which you have trouble falling (and staying) asleep.
To combat insomnia, Mendez recommends limiting caffeine, avoiding screens at night, and not looking at the clock. If you’re tossing and turning, get out of bed and do a calming activity before trying to fall asleep again. You should also be evaluated for other conditions that can affect sleep, such as leg movement disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Eat an energy-boosting diet.
One of the best ways to rev up your energy is by eating the right foods. Opt for healthy choices such as fresh fruits and vegetables and cut out energy-sapping fare like candy, soda, and other sugar-laden drinks. (They may give you a temporary buzz but will leave you with an energy crash shortly afterward, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.)
A glass of wine or bottle of beer may help you drift off at night, but that nightcap can worsen sleep apnea. “Alcohol affects the muscle tone in your upper airway, making your palate floppy, so it’s more likely to close up and collapse,” says Mendez. You should also try to avoid taking sedatives, such as benzodiazepines, which may worsen the number of apnea episodes you have at night.
If you have sleep apnea, you’re at risk for becoming dehydrated at night. One reason is that your body loses fluid when you open your mouth to breathe, according to research published in February 2015 in the journal Clinical Science.
And if your apnea shortens your sleep, you may be especially parched. Case in point: Sleeping six hours at night is associated with a higher risk of dehydration compared with logging eight hours of shut-eye, a study published in November 2018 in the journal Sleep shows. (Researchers think one possible reason inadequate sleep may be linked to dehydration has to do with the fact that a hormone called vasopressin, which makes sure our bodies don’t lose too much water while we sleep, is released in increasing amounts in the later stage of the sleep cycle.)
Downing a large amount of water before bed will lead to middle-of-the-night bathroom trips, so stay hydrated by regularly sipping on H20 throughout the day.
When you’re running low on energy, exercise may be the last thing you want to do, but a good workout is exactly what you need. Exercise helps battle fatigue and has the added bonus of improving your sleep by helping you relax at night, says Mendez.
If you have sleep apnea, try to do both aerobic exercise and strength training to help improve your sleep quality and lessen daytime fatigue. Research published in November-December 2016 in Jornal Brasileiro de Pneumologia suggests that this combo may tone the muscles in the upper airway, preventing collapse; reduce fluid accumulation in the neck, which can block breathing ability; and lessen inflammation.
Smokers (even those without sleep apnea) tend to sleep less, take longer to fall asleep, and have poorer sleep quality compared with nonsmokers, research published in March 2018 in Addictive Disorders and Their Treatment shows. This is likely because nicotine disrupts your sleep-wake cycle and may also apply to vaping. Smokers who have sleep apnea can fare even worse. According to Smokefree.gov, quitting smoking will stop lung damage and may make it easier to do things like walk up the stairs without shortness of breath in as little as two weeks after quitting.
Reevaluate your treatment plan.
If you’re actively treating sleep apnea and continuing to battle fatigue, you’re not alone. In CPAP users, this can happen in 5 to 55 percent of patients, according to a study published in September 2016 in the journal Sleep Medicine Clinics. The researchers suggest sticking to CPAP therapy, if you’re using it; improving your sleep habits, which are worth another look; asking your doctor if any of your medications are interfering with your sleep; and figuring out if you have another underlying condition that’s contributing to your fatigue, such as diabetes or hypothyroidism. You should also consider being evaluated for other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy or restless legs syndrome.
Together, you’ll get to the bottom of it — and feel energized in the future.