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Obstructive sleep apnea – causes, side effects and treatments at

Thursday, June 14, 2018 by

The term “sleep apnea” refers to a condition where breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep. There are many types of sleep apnea, but the most common is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a potentially serious disorder that occurs when the throat muscles block a person’s airway during sleep.

When a person sleeps, all of his muscles become more relaxed – including the muscles surrounding the airway. The throat leaves some opening for air to pass by; however, there are certain cases where the muscles in the upper throat, when relaxed, block the airway. This causes snoring, where air forces itself out of the narrowed airway. While snoring is a hallmark symptom of OSA, not all everyone who does it has the condition.

The condition is fairly common – at least one in five adults have mild symptoms of OSA, while one in 15 people have symptoms ranging from moderate to severe. In the U.S., the National Sleep Foundation estimates that over 18 million have the condition.

OSA is seen more in older adults, especially those over the age of 50, but it can still develop in other age groups – including children. Men are also more likely to develop OSA, as well as those who have a family history of the disorder

Known risk factors and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea

While OSA can affect everyone, people with certain conditions or lifestyle habits are more likely to develop the condition.

  • Overweight or obesity. Excess fat – commonly seen in people with excess weight – builds up around the upper airway and restricts breathing during sleep.
  • Narrowed airways. People who have been born with naturally narrow airways are more likely to develop OSA. In some cases, an inflammation or enlargement of the tonsils or adenoids can also block the airways.
  • Chronic nasal congestion. Those who have persistent nasal congestion, no matter what the cause, are at risk of developing OSA because of narrowed airways.
  • Other medical conditions. Most people with hypertension, diabetes, or asthma also develop OSA.
  • Smoking. People who smoke increase their risk of having the condition.

Symptoms of OSA can start off mild and be present for years before it develops and is evaluated.

Nocturnal (night-time) symptoms include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Witnessed apneas, which interrupt the snoring and end with a snort
  • The sensation of gasping for air or choking
  • Nocturia – regularly being awoken from sleep to urinate
  • Restlessness during sleep and insomnia

During the day, the following symptoms may be observed:

  • Non-restorative sleep
  • Waking up with a headache, including a dry or sore throat
  • Sleepiness during the day, which progress from quiet activities (like reading) to those that require alertness (such as school, work, and driving)
  • Feeling tired throughout the day
  • Lapses in memory and cognition
  • Morning confusion
  • Mood swings, including depression and anxiety
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Sexual dysfunction

Body systems affected by obstructive sleep apnea

If OSA, as well as other forms of sleep apnea, is left untreated, it could lead to the following complications:

  • Hypercapnic respiratory failure. The term, which means an increased presence of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, is a known complication of sleep apnea and is often associated with heart failure.
  • Complications from gross obesity. Individuals with sleep apnea who are also suffering from obesity could experience a reduced compliance in the chest wall, which could lead to a fat build-up in the rib cage and an overstretching of the diaphragm.
  • Neuromuscular disorders. The weakened chest wall muscles from sleep apnea make it difficult to breathe, increasing the risk of the disorders that affect the heart’s rhythm and those that weaken or interrupt muscle tone.
  • Chronic lung disease. OSA, in particular, can cause chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
  • Myocardial infarction (MI). The condition, which goes by a more ominous term – a heart attack, is a potentially fatal complication of OSA.

Death is also a complication from sleep apnea; however, the cases of death as a result of sleep apnea is unclear. For the most part, experts link OSA complications with death, where the condition is also tied to pre-existing medical and surgical conditions.

Food items or nutrients that may prevent or relieve obstructive sleep apnea

In most cases, OSA is tied up with obesity. That said, modifying a diet to one that supports healthy weight management could help attenuate symptoms related to it. Certain lifestyle changes must be made, including quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol, and practicing side-sleeping, to improve a person’s chances of successfully managing – if not treating – the condition. Some recommended changes include:

  • Eating more fruits and vegetables. These are packed with nutrients and fiber while being low in calories. To make the most out of these, replace calorie-dense snacks with fresh varieties to promote fullness. In particular, high-fiber fruits and vegetables include raspberries, citrus fruits, pears, apples, artichokes, broccoli, cabbage, dark leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and winter squash. However, the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) does not recommend bananas for those with OSA; the fruit increases mucus production and may aggravate symptoms.
  • Getting yogurt and other low-fat dairy products. These provide copious amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and protein while reducing caloric intake from heavy cream varieties.
  • Going for whole grains. These are packed with essential nutrients and fiber which have been lost during processing, helping a person stay fuller for a longer period of time. Some varieties include whole grain bread, barley, wild rice, brown rice, and old-fashioned oats.
  • Using plant-based oils. People who are overweight and have sleep apnea would do well to replace their saturated fat sources with healthier alternatives like olive oil. This will also reduce their risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Treatment and management options for obstructive sleep apnea

For the most part, OSA and other forms of sleep apnea cause an overall reduction in health and an increase in life-threatening complications. The first step in treating sleep apnea is to modify a patient’s lifestyle, which includes:

  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Quitting smoking
  • Losing weight
  • Sleeping on the side

In some cases, healthcare professionals would try to recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, which provides a steady stream of pressurized air through a mask. Some cases, such as obstructing tissue or enlarged tonsils, require surgery or an oral device called a mandibular repositioning device (MRD) to hold the jaw in place and keep the upper airway open. However, long-term use of MRD could include jaw and tooth pain, as well as aggravated temporomandibular joint disease.

Where to learn more


Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition where the throat muscles block a person’s airway during sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is fairly common – at least one in five adults have mild symptoms.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can affect everyone, but those who are overweight or obese, have metabolic dysfunction, and have a family history of the disorder are more likely to develop it.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), if left untreated, could lead to the following complications in the heart and chest wall muscles, even death.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), could be managed with lifestyle changes and a healthy diet.

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