When we think about sleep apnea, we usually consider it a fat man’s disease.
Turns out, this isn’t the case: Overweight men are just the most likely to be diagnosed with sleep apnea because their snoring symptoms cause doctors to take a closer look.
The reality is, 80 percent of people who have sleep apnea don’t know it. And it is believed that 9 percent of women are affected by sleep apnea to one degree or another.
If you do have sleep apnea, it could be the reason you’re tired all the time. It could be the reason your mood is uncharacteristically low. And it could be affecting your performance in the gym.
Before we look at that, though, let’s consider what exactly sleep apnea is and why it’s so potentially detrimental to your health.
Sleep Apnea Nuts and Bolts
Sleep apnea is when you stop breathing multiple times during the night due to a blockage, or narrowing, of your airways because your tongue and throat muscles relax.
Traditionally apnea is defined as you stop breathing at least five times for more than 10 seconds or longer in one night. However, as respiratory therapist Elena Zebroff explained, this is a problematic definition, because it means if you’re getting tested for sleep apnea and you stop breathing seven times in one night for 9.5 seconds each time, you will remain undiagnosed.
While mild sleep apnea is defined as five breathing interruptions, those with severe apnea can stop breathing as many as 100 times a night. More than 30 interruptions in one night are considered severe apnea.
Though it’s tough to say whether sleep apnea can be prevented altogether, there are certain lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your chances of developing the condition.
Being overweight increases your chances of getting sleep apnea, so keeping a healthy body weight is useful in preventing the condition, as is avoiding drinking too much alcohol. Further, this 2011 study suggests that exercise can help reduce the severity of sleep apnea, even without weight loss.
Do You Have Sleep Apnea?
Some of the common symptoms include:
- Sleepiness during the day
- Tossing and turning at night
- Waking up a lot at night
- Waking up with a headache, and generally feeling unrested
Why is it important to get diagnosed?
It is important to get diagnosed because oftentimes sleep apnea prevents you from getting into your super important deep sleep, and then the stopping breathing part means less oxygen makes it to your blood, which can cause serious long-term health problems.
Further, your brain is affected when you stop breathing, as it activates your adrenals and can elevate your blood pressure.
Those with sleep apnea have an increased chance not only of having high blood pressure, and also of developing an abnormal heartbeat, heart failure, dementia, sexual dysfunction, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Not Just a Fat Man’s Disease
The reason sleep apnea has become commonly known as “a fat man’s disease” is because they’re the ones who have frequently been diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea (via a CPAP—continuous positive airway pressure—machine).
In fact, men are diagnosed with sleep apnea eight times more often than women!
Three reasons why include:
- Bias: A woman comes in to see her doctor and doesn’t look like the typical sleep apnea patient (i.e. she isn’t a fat man), so instead of considering apnea, she often gets treated for other sleep problems like insomnia. Often, she leaves the doctor’s office with sleeping pills, as opposed to a recommendation for further testing for apnea.
- Women Snore Less: Men tend to snore louder than women. In fact, partners and wives are commonly the ones kept up at night from their husband’s snoring, so they’re the ones who push their man to go to the doctor to be tested for sleep apnea.
Meanwhile, women tend to snore more quietly and it often goes unnoticed on their partner’s end.
Another theory is that men are simply less observant than their female partner as to what’s going on in the bed next to them. As a result, women push their male partners to get checked out medically, and it rarely happens the other way around—at least that’s what the experts say.
- Women Express Their Symptoms Differently: Women often point to different apnea symptoms than men, such as having a headache or mood disturbances, as opposed to snoring and poor sleep. As a result, women are often given things like antidepressants instead of being sent for sleep apnea testing.
Even if sleep apnea isn’t the problem causing your sleep problems, a solution to many other sleep disturbances is… Drum roll:
Exercise Before Bed
We often assume working out before bed will keep us awake, but this isn’t necessarily the case. There’s growing evidence that a workout sleep might actually help improve the quality of your sleep.
For example, this 2011 study found that exercise before bed improves sleep. And most recently, Swiss researchers examined 23 previously-published studies about sleep and exercise and found that those who exercised within four hours of bedtime had a more deep and restorative sleep than those who didn’t.
That being said, high-intensity exercise before bed may backfire and keep your body firing on all cylinders, making it difficult to sleep. But a moderate to low-intensity workout, like a light jog, a bike ride, a swim, yoga, or even a walk outside, has been proven to be useful for improving the quality of sleep.
Exercise and Insomnia, Hormones, and Stress
There’s evidence that suggests exercise is a natural therapy for insomnia. (There’s also evidence that overtraining can make insomnia worse, as it messes with your adrenal system, but let’s assume most of us don’t fall into the overtraining category.)
Aerobic exercise appears to be particularly effective in reducing symptoms of insomnia.
If it’s stress that’s causing you to toss and turn at night, the solution might once again be a healthy dose of exercise, as working out triggers natural anti-anxiety and anti-stress responses in the body by releasing feel-good neurotransmitters in the body, otherwise called endorphins. The runner’s high is a real thing!
Further, working out often helps lower cortisol levels in the body (the stress hormone), which is also related to better sleep.
Bottom line: Keep moving regularly and sleep tight.