Hidden signs your partner may have sleep apnea

With all the news about sleep apnea in the media, the message is starting to get out about this life-threatening disorder. Snoring, of course, is a primary symptom of sleep apnea. Snoring is usually not a good sign and should be investigated by a qualified provider.  Although snoring may be present without sleep apnea, it still needs to be evaluated.

However, there are a number of symptoms that are often not linked to disturbances in sleep breathing. Does someone you love suffer from any of these?

Waking up with a dry mouth. When a sleeper can’t breathe through their nose, they breathe through their mouth. People also develop a habit of mouth-breathing when their oxygen levels drop as a result of the repeated waking events that occur with sleep apnea. Mouth-breathing causes dry mouth, which can lead to a sore throat or worse—problems with the teeth and gums that can be harmful to oral and overall health.   Also mouth breathing will not stimulate the production of Nitric oxide as nasal breathing does.


Headache upon waking. When the airway closes off during sleep, as it does with sleep apnea, the jaws automatically clench. That action forces the muscles of the throat to open the airway. However, all that clenching and grinding can not only damage the teeth, it can fatigue the muscles of the jaw and the temple. That can lead to head and face pain upon waking.  The headache may also be due to a hypoxic state (lack of oxygen) to the brain.


GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Has your partner developed a chronic case of heartburn? If so, chances are they may have gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD as a result of stomach contents backing up into the esophagus. Research has found a link between GERD and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—according to one study, some 60 percent of people with OSA also have GERD. The condition occurs because OSA causes additional effort to breathe, which can ultimately disrupt the function of the esophagus. But it’s a two-way street: The pain and discomfort of GERD can keep a person from getting a good night’s sleep.   This reflux may also be related to upper airway resistance (UAR).


High blood pressure. Research has found a link between high blood pressure and OSA—some 30 to 50 percent of people with high blood pressure may also have sleep apnea. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults who sleep fewer than six hours a night may be twice as likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke. That’s based on a study of 3,000 adults over age 45. The connection lies in the strain on the cardiovascular system from the drop in blood oxygen levels that occurs because of decreased airflow caused by the collapse of the airway during sleep.


Forgetfulness or brain fog. Without oxygen, the neurotransmitters, neurochemicals, and hormones in your brain and body cannot do their work. Over time, that can lead to everything from temporary memory loss and difficulty concentrating or making decisions to muscle weakness, seizures, and even brain death.  In addition, without enough deep sleep the brain is unable to remove toxins built up during the day.


Diabetes. When a person does not get enough sleep, the body’s “hunger hormones,” ghrelin and leptin, switch roles. Ghrelin signals to the brain when the body is hungry and needs nutrition. Leptin shuts off the hunger signal to the brain. When sleep is constantly disrupted by sleep apnea, ghrelin stays elevated while leptin remains low. That makes a person feel hungry all the time.   Also, it’s common that when there is insufficient sleep, one will typically reach for carbs to provide a boost of energy.


If your partner snores or has any of the health issues I’ve discussed, an oral physician can examine them to see if they may be suffering from sleep apnea or another form of sleep-disordered breathing.