Don’t be embarrassed or argue with your friend or partner if they tell you that you snore heavily and your breathing stops intermittently while you’re asleep.

Most people with these kinds of sleeping issues don’t know it until someone else brings it to their attention, so you should thank them. Your tip-off may be sleepiness and poor mental functioning during the day, increased blood pressure, or frequent nighttime urination. If you already know that you are a heavy snorer, you should be on alert. You may have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

Obstructive sleep apnea means absence of breathing during sleeping due to obstruction. What happens is that the tongue and soft palate in the back of your mouth collapse and can close up your windpipe while you’re sleeping. You continue to try breathing, but without success. Your brain then wakes you up ever so slightly so that breathing can resume. This can happen many, many times during your sleep without you realizing it. Each episode can last 10 seconds or longer and gradually lead to lower oxygen levels in your blood.

Medically, different types of sleep apnea are recognized, the most common being OSA. Over a quarter of middle-aged men have it. A smaller number of people experience central sleep apnea (CSA). Usually, OSA is connected to aging, decreased muscle tone, increased soft tissue around the neck, and sleeping on your back. It also appears to run in families. Smoking and drinking alcohol can make it worse. Most people have mild obstructive sleep apnea at some point in their lives, especially during times of swelling of the soft tissue around the throat, such as in upper respiratory infections, tonsillitis or infectious mononucleosis.

Why should you care?

Aside from making you feel tired, unwell or even depressed, sleep apnea can also have more severe consequences. It can contribute to accidents, weight gain, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Sleep fragmentation and hypoxia can affect your nervous system and mental functioning as well as your immune system. In children, in can impair their cognitive and behavioral development. It can be involved in ADD and ADHD.

How to find out if you have sleep apnea

Diagnosing sleep apnea involves several steps. Your healthcare provider will take a detailed health history, perform a physical exam and order laboratory testing, have you fill out a lengthy questionnaire and recommend a sleep study. Often, this observation, called polysomnography, will take place in a sleep lab. However, technical advances now allow this type of diagnostic testing to be performed at home, in your own bed, and at much lower cost. It’s called Home Sleep Testing (HST).

What are your treatment options?

The good new is that sleep apnea is usually not treated with medications or surgery but primarily with lifestyle changes. These include changing your sleeping position, for example getting used to sleeping on your side or raising the upper body about 30 degrees, if you cannot sleep on your side. Weight loss in overweight people can also make a big difference. Interestingly, playing oboe or bassoon can help, too. Most often, however, your physician will encourage you to start using an Auto-CPAP at night. This is an automatic continuous positive airway pressure device you wear at night. If you cannot or will not use this kind of device, there are other interventions you can discuss with your physician.

Acupuncture to the rescue

Fortunately, there is now encouraging research available to show that acupuncture can be a valuable treatment option for people with obstructive sleep apnea. A 2016 meta-analysis according to Cochrane Collaboration criteria performed by Zheng-tao et al. (The Clinical Effect of Acupuncture in the Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials) established that various acupuncture treatment methods (including both manual acupuncture and electroacupuncture) were more effective than conventional treatment for OSA, even more effective than CPAP devices. Acupuncture was also found to have few, if any, negative side-effects.

Acupuncture points used in the treatment of sleep apnea help regulate the energy flow in the meridians passing through the neck. The treatment can measurably alter the production of certain neurotransmitters. It may promote better muscle tone in the soft tissues of the throat. As is often the case, we do not fully understand how acupuncture works in specific conditions because it may affect our functioning on several different levels. We can, however, observe the effects-over-time on our health and well-being. Consider acupuncture if you have mild OSA or difficulty using an Auto-CPAP.

Chinese herbal medicine for whole-body health

Even a conventionally trained physician will usually acknowledge that sleep apnea can have several different causes, forming a more complex picture than just a collapsing soft palate. Many other facets of your health can play a role in the severity of your sleep apnea and, thus, should be addressed in a holistic manner. Chinese medicine practitioners take a detailed inventory of your entire health to determine a pattern of disharmony that can be rebalanced with acupuncture, herbal medicine and appropriate lifestyle changes. While a prescription of botanicals may not provide instant relief from your apnea, it can help heal underlying causes of why you developed it in the first place—something that a CPAP is unlikely to achieve. For example, it can help manage healthy weight and endocrine or metabolic disorders. Over time, your health overall will improve and you will experience better energy.

Teamwork ahead

If you have any indication that your health concerns may be related to a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea, you should talk to your physician as soon as possible to begin investigating. The sooner you take this seriously, the better your chances of minimizing long-term health risks and beginning to feel better. If you are diagnosed with OSA, use all the tools in your toolbox to get better, including lifestyle changes, appropriate sleep devices, and natural therapies like acupuncture and botanical medicine. Feeling better cannot come a day too soon.

© 2023 Christiane Siebert