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Wednesday Wellbeing: Silent Epidemic

A few weeks ago I wrote about my grandfather's life-threatening sleep apnea. He was a family doctor and was chronically overworked most of his life. This stress resulted in reduced sleep quality at night and the need for more naps during his off days and free afternoons. His refusal to use a CPAP and also his inability to slow down created a vicious cycle. His late 60s and early 70s were marred by chronic health issues which led to a premature death. Unfortunately, his story is not unique.

One out of ten adults in the United States have undiagnosed Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). Not to be confused with Central Sleep Apnea (CSA), OSA is caused by the relaxation of tissues in the throat during sleep, leading to a cessation of breathing. Any more than four such episodes per hour is indicative of mild OSA. 15-29 is moderate OSA. 30 or more is severe OSA. There are two ways to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea. One is through a sleep study (which has its pros and cons). The second way is through symptoms.

The number one symptom is chronic fatigue, followed closely by snoring. If you are overweight, or even slightly overweight, your chances of developing OSA are noticeably increased. Also, taking any muscle relaxants (including alcohol) at night makes things worse. Sleep position and stress level play a part as well in the quality of sleep, as does nasal congestion and overall muscular tone in the neck and tongue. The good news is that many of these areas can be directly modified by adjusting our lifestyle.

I took a deep dive into sleep apnea after my grandfather died and started working on several areas of my life immediately. I adjusted my evening routine to be as low-key as possible. I began avoiding screens and bright lights at night, which can overstimulate the nervous system. I wasn't a big drinker before, but I made sure to reduce it as much as possible. I also made a conscious effort to breathe as much as possible through my nose during the day. Mouth breathing can lead to physical changes in the bone structure in our face and reduce nasal airflow. I eliminated any excess sugar, dairy, and gluten in my diet, which can increase sinus congestion and overall inflammation. I made a point to work out my jaw, throat, and tongue on a daily basis with lots of chewing, clicking, and humming. Lastly, I started taping my mouth at night.

I can see your face right now. Taping your mouth? Your claustrophobia is kicking in. You are imagining the worse. I assure you that I thought the same thing on that first night. Here's what I have learned--you are absolutely going to be fine! Here is my foolproof technique. Make sure that you are within three days of a clean shave (so that the adhesive sticks to the skin) and also make sure you don't have any oils on your hands or face before applying the tape. Take a 4-inch piece of white athletic tape and (with sealed lips) place it over your mouth, corner to corner. Go to sleep and focus on breathing through your nose. Even if you are congested, you will be surprised by how quickly your sinuses open up.

One of the first people I treated when I started Chattanooga Holistic Medicine in 2016 was coming to me for sleep apnea. He has a fit, low-stress gentleman in his late 60s. His lifestyle was atypical for sleep apnea, so he came to me looking for an alternative. I used acupuncture combined with tongue and soft palate exercises with him for a month and he saw 100% improvement. Even if you are doing everything right, a little bit of acupuncture and corrective exercises may still be warranted.

Good luck and sleep tight!

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