Monday, March 19, 2012


I realize I've been MIA for nearly a month but I do have an excuse - if there are any for not blogging regularly! - I've been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. And not just severe sleep apnea - the sleep doctor figures I've had it most of my life, probably since childhood, and have been "averaging" about 2 to 3 hours of sleep a night. I don't need to tell you how much that can mess up your life!

Everyone stops breathing in their sleep two, three, maybe five times an hour. Your brain sends your lungs the message to start up again, and voila! You shudder, gasp, or snort, and breathe again, with you none the wiser. To stop breathing five to twenty times an hour is moderate sleep apnea. Anything over thirty times an hour is severe: my average? Seventy to eighty times an hour. That's right - I've only been hitting stage one sleep, never stage two, and only got in 40 minutes of REM in 5.5 hrs. of sleep at the sleep lab.

The results? For the past five years I've been afraid that my memory's been "going", I've had an angina heart attack, I've struggled with putting words together on the page, and I've suffered from nearly constant migraines. I've been waking up with a constant headache even if I don't have a migraine. I've gained weight even though I've tried Weight Watchers twice and followed the program.

People with sleep apnea are at great risk for heart attacks and strokes. I can't emphasize this enough because until I was diagnosed I had no idea that sleep apnea is the second leading cause of heart and stroke problems. Sufferers also have a greater number of car accidents due to lack of focus, inability to concentrate properly, and daytime fatigue.

Here's a spot check for yourself (or someone you love):
  1. can you fall asleep anytime after 11 a.m.?
  2. have you fallen asleep in meetings or church?
  3. do you snore loudly or disrupt your partners sleep with your snoring?
  4. do you wake up gasping or feeling like you're choking in your sleep?
  5. are you groggy and have morning headaches?
  6. do you get up frequently in the night to urinate?
  7. do you suffer from depression and irritability?
It's all caused by Obstructive Sleep Apnea - the most common kind - and it's because your airway is collapsing on itself during the night. Studies say we need one hour of sleep for every two hours we're awake. Which brings us back to our school health class where the teacher told us we need to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night to function at our peak capacity.

"Sleep medicine" has only begun to get front line attention in the past ten years. This explains why literally thousands of people have been diagnosed with depression and likely aren't depressed at all - the symptoms mimic each other. Trouble concentrating? Sleeping endlessly? Tired during the day? Loss of appetite or increase in appetite? Not enjoying your normal activities anymore? With sleep deprivation you'll be driven to consume more carbohydrates to bump up your energy and your brain is literally being oxygen deprived at night as well. My own oxygen saturation rate went down to 75% - the real reason for my constant headaches and migraines.

The only treatment - and there's no cure, this is a treatment - is a CPAP machine, or Constant Positive Air Pressure machine. There're different models but they all do the same thing; they keep your airway to your lungs open by pulling air from your room in through a nose or facial mask, pushing it down your airway, and forcing you to breathe out to get rid of the carbon dioxide. The masks are pretty Draconian-looking, but chances are your partner will rather sleep with you looking like you're on life support then continue suffering with your obnoxious snoring and snorting next to them.

It takes time to get used to breathing with the machine. It takes time for your brain to start responding to dreaming again. It takes patience before you start feeling like a "new you". I'm not quite there yet, but my daily life has improved 200%. My writing's back - I thought I'd lost it forever. My memory is coming out of the fog and I haven't had a daytime nap in a couple of weeks.

If you or someone you love has any of these symptoms I strongly urge you to talk to your doctor and get a sleep study ordered. You'll sleep over in a "lab" which is a fancy word for a couple of bedrooms with a room full of monitoring equipment. You'll be hooked up to painless electrodes on your head, face, chest, and legs. In fact, you'll look like a suicide bomber by the time they finish with you, but the wires are unnoticeable once you're asleep. The room will be dark and you can talk to the technologists at any time through a two-way system if you need help during the night. They'll wake you up at 5:30 a.m. and send you home. Nothing to it!
And if you have moderate to severe sleep apnea you'll be eligible for a CPAP machine that will literally change your life. Your heart muscle will regenerate itself after possibly years of hypoxia. Your brain will come alive again. Your marriage or relationship will improve once your partner doesn't have to put up with your snoring anymore and s/he's sleeping well for a change.

I have a friend who has all the symptoms, realizes she likely has sleep apnea, but is too vain to sleep in the lab and "have people stare at me while I'm sleeping". Seriously? Your health is too precious to worry about trained technologists monitoring a computer. I'm still working on her to get checked out. Don't waste time - talk to your doctor about your symptoms. And then get back to doing all the things you love to do!