October 11, 2022 5 min read
Most likely everyone diagnosed with sleep apnea has asked this question at some point. Treating sleep apnea takes time, costs money and can be uncomfortable when a CPAP machine is involved. If time could heal all your sleep apnea problems, it would seem like a much better option.
But the reality is that sleep apnea is a chronic condition that tends to get progressively worse if left untreated. In other words, sleep apnea won’t get better by itself, only worse. If you want to learn more about this common sleep disorder and how it is treated, keep reading.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. It is characterized by loud habitual snoring, often with choking or gasping sounds. Two of the most common types of sleep apnea are obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) usually happens because tissues in the upper airways collapse. Inflammation from allergies, viral infections, or GERD can lead to this. Anatomical abnormalities like a deviated septum, long uvula, or a large tongue are other culprits. In the great majority of OSA sufferers, however, the upper airway collapses as a result of excess neck fat or weak upper airway muscles.
The primary risk factors for developing this type of sleep apnea include:
In central sleep apnea (CSA), breathing stops because the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles that are responsible for breathing. It is often due to chronic health conditions (e.g. heart failure, kidney failure, or Parkinson’s disease).
Sleep apnea causes pauses in breathing, often lasting 10 to 30 seconds and up to 400 times a night. These pauses cause a drop in blood oxygen levels and trigger arousal from sleep, which you’re usually not aware of. As a result, your sleep becomes severely fragmented and compromised if you have sleep apnea.
In other words, you don’t get the refreshing sleep your brain and body need to help you stay healthy and survive. Unsurprisingly, studies have found a strong association between sleep apnea and a 3-fold increased risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, cognitive problems, depression, and car accidents.
In short, no. Most cases of sleep apnea actually worsen over time without treatment. Research carried out over the past four decades shows that OSA has a natural history characterized by progressive worsening. It usually starts with occasional snoring, then heavy and frequent snoring before gradually progressing to sleep apnea syndrome over 15 to 20 years.
There are two main reasons why this may be the case.
First, sleep apnea may get worse with age due to weight gain and loss of muscle strength, which is common as people grow older. A decrease in muscle mass often starts at around age 50 and is more prominent in one’s 60s. Weight gain around the neck and throat area narrows the upper airways. Paired with decreased upper airway dilator muscle tone, you have a recipe for upper airway collapsibility.
Second, sleep apnea leads to fragmented sleep that causes sufferers to put on weight due to its negative impact on glucose metabolism. This may also explain why half of all type 2 diabetes patients have some level of OSA, according to current research.
There is, unfortunately, no known cure for sleep apnea, natural or conventional. There are, however, treatment options that help control sleep apnea and its symptoms. This is especially true for severe sleep apnea, which needs to be managed with gold-standard continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.
But if you are looking for a cure, the closest thing to it is living a healthy lifestyle. Losing weight, regular exercise, avoiding tobacco, and limiting alcohol can help increase airway space, tone upper airway muscles, and prevent excessive muscle relaxation. According to a 2013 systematic review published in the journalSleep, these simple measures can naturally reduce sleep apnea severity.
And if you have a mild case of sleep apnea, your outlook may be even better. According to Dr. Molly Cooke, who is president of the American College of Physicians and who spoke for NPR, weight loss can reduce neck and throat fat that may be blocking the upper airway. And she may be right as there have been case reports where sleep apnea completely resolved after weight loss. One such case report was
If you’ve already been diagnosed with sleep apnea and were told CPAP therapy was your only hope, you may be wondering if that’s really the case. Many patients receiving CPAP therapy have trouble sticking to it. And that’s understandable why: CPAP machines can be claustrophobic, loud, and difficult to sleep with.
Luckily, there is an alternative that can be just as effective: oral appliances. Oral appliances are medical devices that keep certain parts of the mouth slightly protruded to help keep the upper airways open. The most commonly prescribed oral appliance is a mandibular advancement device (MAD).
A MAD needs to be custom-fitted, and patients need to have healthy teeth to get this treatment. The device pushes the jaw slightly forward, and this keeps some of the tissues in the back of your throat from falling back as you sleep.
Another oral appliance is a tongue-stabilizing device. This device does not need to be custom-fitted and is suitable for a wide range of patients. It looks somewhat like a large pacifier. The device uses suction to push the tongue slightly beyond the lips. This keeps it from falling at the back of your throat and blocking airflow. The Good Morning Snore Solution is one such appliance that has been clinically tested for safety and efficiency.
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Araghi MH, Chen YF, Jagielski A, et al. Effectiveness of lifestyle interventions on obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): systematic review and meta-analysis.Sleep. 2013;36(10):1553-1562E. Published 2013 Oct 1.doi:10.5665/sleep.3056
NPR. Lose Weight Before Trying Other Sleep Apnea Treatments. September 24.https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/09/23/225429783/lose-weight-before-trying-cpap-sleep-apnea-treatments/
Gala TR, Seaman DR. Lifestyle modifications and the resolution of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome: a case report.J Chiropr Med. 2011;10(2):118-125.doi:10.1016/j.jcm.2010.12.003
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