America has a big problem with sleep. It isn’t getting enough! One third of the population regularly gets less than the doctor-recommended minimum of seven hours a night. Recently the Centre for Disease Control declared the prevalence of sleeping disorders to constitute a public health epidemic. Yikes!
These sleeping disorders come in all shapes and sizes, from snoring and sleepwalking to full-blown insomnia. Of course, anything that prevents an individual from getting good quality sleep is a big problem but not all sleep disorders are created equal. Far from it! Some are much more serious than others. Case in point – sleep apnea.
What is sleep apnea?
That’s an important question because current research estimates only a quarter of sufferers are likely aware they have the condition. In Greek, the word ‘apnea’ translates as ‘an absence of breath’, which might give you an idea.
Sleep apnea (or apnoea in the UK) is a potentially dangerous involuntary relaxation of throat and tongue muscles during sleep. This action constricts the airways and causes oxygen intake to drop. This freaks the brain into startling the body awake. This process can be repeated tens, if not hundreds, of times each night. Scary stuff right?
What causes sleep apnea?
Like most sleeping disorders the causes of sleep apnea are diverse. It could be caused by congenital conditions, enlarged tonsils, a deviated septum, dental conditions or even sinus problems. However, in the majority of cases the cause of the condition is an excess of weight.
Obese individuals are a whopping four times more likely to develop sleep apnea than their slimmer counterparts. The reason for this is quite simple – when individuals gain weight they don’t just do so around the stomach. They pile on the pounds in a range of areas. The bad news is one of those areas tends to be around the airways.
Fatty deposits around the neck add pressure to already strained throat and tongue muscles. When we sleep we go into a state of relaxation, these muscles relax and the excess weight is just too much for them to contend with.
There is a healthy rule of thumb used by those in the know. If you’re a man with a collar measuring over 17 inches, or a woman with a collar over 15 inches, then you’re in danger of developing sleep apnea.
Why is diet important?
The internet is awash with every fad diet under the sun. Some work, others don’t. More often than not success come down to the individual. In truth just adhering to healthy eating – that’s a menu heavy in fresh fruit and vegetables – is the best advice anyone can give.
Research indicates that when it comes to weight loss and all round good health, leaning toward a low carbohydrate Mediterranean diet is far preferable to adhering to the typical high-calorie American style carbfest. That means time to put down the burger. Sorry!
Ironically, the better we sleep the better we are able to control our cravings, appetite and overall weight. The team at the Sleep Advisor blog talk about the connection between weight and sleep all the time. Improving your diet can improve you sleep and improving your sleep can make dieting easier. It’s a very healthy feedback loop to get into.
Food and drink to avoid
Diets often fail because they look to prohibit individuals from eating things they have grown to love over the course of a lifetime. The trick is not to ban any one thing but to eat in moderation.
However, when it comes to a serious medical condition such as sleep apnea, there are some foods that it would be healthier to avoid completely – or at least in the evening anyway.
Bananas for one. While the yellow fruit usually scores very highly on the health stakes, unfortunately they tend to increase mucus production in the body which isn’t great for people suffering for nighttime breathing conditions. The same goes for high fat dairy like cheese and whole milk.
Fatty meats are another big no. Food high in saturated fats tend to lead to inflammation, which once again is the last thing someone suffering from constricted airways needs.
Last but not least, alcohol. While many look forward fondly to a nightcap before bed, sufferers of sleep apnea should definitely put the cap back on the bottle. Not only does booze increase inflammation and liquid retention, alcohol is also a muscle relaxant. Unfortunately individuals with sleep apnea have muscles in their throat that are already relaxed a little bit too much.
There is no such thing as the average person. Not all overweight people will develop sleep apnea and not all sleep apnea is related to weight. However, for most the correlation is clear – the bigger your belly is, the worse your odds are of suffering from this potentially dangerous condition.
By Sarah Cummings of SleepAdvisor.org.