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7 Healthy Tips for Better Sleep When You Have Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Sleep is so important for our mental, physical and emotional health, but catching enough ZZs at night can be challenging for some, especially if you have obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing for short periods of time throughout the night. This means you aren’t getting enough oxygen and could cause you to gasp and awaken at night. In addition to sleep deprivation, it can increase your risk for atrial fibrillation (AFib), heart failure, stroke, diabetes and several other conditions.

Because sleep apnea can have such a negative impact on your health, figuring out how to get better sleep will go a long way to helping you reclaim your life.

Not sure where to start? The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to sleep longer and breathe easier at night. Kirstin Knobbe, MD, a sleep specialist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix shared 7 ways to get better sleep with sleep apnea.

1. Stick to a sleep schedule

While it won’t get rid of your sleep apnea, practicing good sleep hygiene is one of the most important pieces of a healthy sleep pattern.

“Try your best to keep the same bedtime and wake time every day of the week,” Dr. Knobbe said. “Research shows most adults feel and function best when they regularly get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.”

For other healthy sleep habits, check out these 10 additional sleep tips.

2. Use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine properly

The most effective treatment available for sleep apnea is a mask worn at night called a CPAP that transmits increased air pressure into the airway to prevent the throat from collapsing. This air pressure goes into the back of the throat holding it open when your throat muscles have relaxed too much during sleep.

The key to CPAP treatment is finding a mask and machine that matches your needs, cleaning the CPAP components frequently and washing your face before putting it on at night. Talk to your health care provider or sleep specialist so they can tailor a CPAP unit for you based on your needs.

3. Work on your sleep positioning

Everyone has their favorite sleep position but changing your sleep position could help improve your symptoms of sleep apnea.

“Side sleeping with your back mostly straight is the best sleep position as it reduces apnea severity and snoring,” Dr. Knobbe said. It can also help keep your spine in proper alignment, although it can put additional strain on your shoulders, hips and spine. This is where having the right pillow can help (see tip 5!).

Stomach sleeping can also reduce apnea severity as it puts gravity on your side. Just be sure to have the proper pillow to alleviate any strain on your neck.

For those who have chronic joint or back pain or acid reflux sleeping on your back with your head elevated may be the best sleep position to reduce aches and pains in the morning. “If you prefer sleeping on your back, your health care provider can adjust your CPAP pressure to treat sleep apnea in this position,” Dr. Knobbe said.

It may take a period of trial and error to find the most comfortable position but keep trying until you find one that works.

4. Consider a dental appliance

If you have mild to moderate sleep apnea, oral appliance therapy is a good alternative to a CPAP. This specially made mouthguard shifts the lower jaw slightly forward, which tightens the soft tissues and muscles in the back of your throat to prevent obstruction while you sleep.

“While CPAP is still considered the most effective treatment for sleep apnea, it’s not a one-size-fits-all therapy,” Dr. Knobbe said. “Consider an oral appliance if you have mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea, have natural teeth and have a healthy body weight.”

Dental devices do require a special fitting, so talk to your health care provider to learn about this treatment option.

5. Invest in the right pillow

When it comes to pillows, you may be surprised that they come in every shape, style, pressure, loft and firmness. While there isn’t one brand of pillow that works best for sleep apnea, finding the option that works best for you depends on your personal preference and sleep position.

For side sleepers, look for a thicker pillow that aligns your neck and takes pressure off your shoulders. For back sleepers, shop for a thinner pillow. For stomach sleepers, look for even thinner pillows. The goal is to keep your spine in its natural alignment.

If your CPAP mask is being dislodged by your pillow at night, consider a CPAP pillow. “These pillows are specifically designed to accommodate CPAP masks,” Dr. Knobbe said. “They have indented areas on both edges of the pillow which leaves space for your mask.”

In addition to your pillow, you may want to consider a new mattress as well. Keep in mind that mattresses need to be replaced every five to eight years. “In general, back sleepers do well on firmer mattresses, while side sleepers may need a softer mattress to alleviate pressure points at the shoulders and hips,” Dr. Knobbe said.

6. Humidify your bedroom

A humidifier in your bedroom can help with dry mouth symptoms that are associated with sleep apnea and CPAP use. If you live in dry climates, like Arizona, you may find a humidifier helps ease sore throat, dry mouth and stuffy nose symptoms. Your CPAP also has a built-in humidifier which can be adjusted for comfort.

“Some people find benefit from using both their CPAP humidifier and a separate humidifier in the bedroom,” Dr. Knobbe said. “Make sure to use clean water daily and wash or replace the recommended parts regularly.”

7. Make diet and lifestyle changes

Another important step you can take to improve your condition is making healthy modifications to your diet and lifestyle habits.

Maintain a healthy weight: Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is beneficial for many health conditions. Eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet full of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.

“Your sleep apnea can improve significantly with weight loss and some people achieve resolution of sleep apnea through weight reduction,” Dr. Knobbe said. “An added benefit is that your CPAP pressure can usually be reduced to a lower setting as you shed the pounds.”

Avoid alcohol and smoking: Alcohol intake is known to worsen sleep apnea and snoring. Even small amounts of alcohol can disrupt your sleep pattern and lead to unwanted early morning awakenings.

Similar to alcohol, tobacco use can worsen your snoring and sleep apnea. Quitting smoking may be one of the most difficult tasks your health care provider asks of you, but the health benefits are too many to list. “Your breathing can improve within weeks to months and you’re much less likely to need oxygen if you quit now,” Dr. Knobbe said.

Need help kicking the habit? Read on to learn about stop smoking tools.

Regular exercise: Moderate aerobic exercise can benefit your heart, your waistline and help you sleep better. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity a day.

Research has shown that doing any type of exercise, including walking, yoga, running, biking and strength training, as few as two days a week or as many as seven days a week, improved sleep apnea symptoms,” Dr. Knobbe said.

Hopefully these sleep tips help you breathe easier at night and wake up more refreshed in the morning. However, if your symptoms begin to worsen, talk to your health care provider or sleep specialist immediately. They can discuss alternative treatment options.

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