While 2020 was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of sleep disorders also increased significantly.
2020 was the year that we all took notice of how precarious our health and wellbeing could be. And as we find ourselves hurtling through 2021, the threat of the COVID-19 virus continues to affect our every move. Even when we head to bed and hope to be free of our daily worries, the impact of this challenging period stays with us.
An increased prevalence of sleep disorders in the wake of the pandemic has been highlighted by several different studies. The first of these were conducted in China, where a survey of 7,236 volunteers found 35% to be suffering with anxiety, 20% with depression, and 18% with poor sleep quality. Elsewhere, one Italian study found 57% of participants to be suffering with disturbed sleep due to the pandemic.
Although most sleep studies in recent months have, understandably, focused on the virus, other health concerns have also become significant. This includes sleep apnoea.
What is sleep apnoea?
To put it simply, sleep apnoea is when your breathing stops and starts while you are asleep. Apnoea episodes can last up to 10 seconds and may occur up to 30 times an hour in severe cases. These periods without air can accumulate to cause both short and long-term health issues as the brain and other parts of the body are starved of oxygen.
Symptoms mainly occur while you are asleep, and include:
- Breathing stopping and starting
- Waking up a lot during the night
- Loud snoring
- Gasping, snorting and choking noises
During the day, sufferers of sleep apnoea are also more likely to feel very tired and suffer from headaches when they wake up. As a result, you may find it hard to concentrate and experience mood swings. It can be difficult to know if you have sleep apnoea as you are asleep when most of the symptoms occur, but leaving the condition untreated can have a significant detrimental impact on your wider health.
Studies in sleep apnoea have shown its severity
Untreated sleep apnoea is associated with poor health and even cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, and patients often treat their condition with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
One UK trial, named the MERGE trial, included 233 participants with mild untreated severe sleep apnoea. This study showed that the use of CPAP significantly improved both the quality of sleep and overall quality of life for participants, showing just how much of a hindrance sleep apnoea can be.
Another study took place in Spain and involved more than 2,500 participants. Patients ranged from those living with moderate sleep apnoea to those with severe sleep apnoea, and the results found that the condition had a significant impact on the cardiovascular health of those involved.
Studies like these prove that sleep apnoea is a lot more than just a tendency to snore. The long-term impact it can have on your respiratory and cardiovascular health can be significant, and the condition also causes a drop in your sleep quality over an extended period of time.
How to manage sleep apnoea symptoms
We’ve already touched upon the use of CPAP as a way to treat the condition, but other factors should also be considered. Relieving pressure on your airways and heart is paramount, and this involves losing weight if you are obese, avoiding excessive stress, and practising an all-round healthy lifestyle.
As with all sleep-related issues, sleep hygiene is another important factor. Take the time to unwind before bed, and ensure that your sleep environment supports good sleep by keeping it cool and dark. Avoid coffee and alcohol in the run-up to bedtime, and make sure you avoid scrolling on your phone right up until the moment your head hits the pillow.
Side sleeping is thought to be the best position for those suffering from sleep apnoea. This position encourages blood flow and prevents the build up of pressure in the chest – which can initiate periods of paused breathing.
While front sleeping is sometimes unsuitable for those with back and neck issues, lying on one’s stomach is actually a good position from a sleep apnoea perspective. This is because gravity helps to pull the tongue and soft tissue forward – leaving the airways clear.
For sufferers of sleep apnoea, back sleeping is actually the worst position. This is because the tongue and soft tissue is more likely to relax and fall back into the airway, and also because more pressure is felt on the chest in this position.
If you’re concerned that you may be suffering from sleep apnoea, you should contact your healthcare professional for treatment and advice tailored to your needs.