Having the occasional restless night and feeling the effects the following day is par for the course. However, it’s not normal or healthy to feel sleepy all the time. In many cases, the phenomenon of excessive daytime sleepiness is related to a common sleep disorder that sufferers may not even be aware of.
“At least 2 to 4 percent of adult women have significant sleep apnea, and the majority of them remain undiagnosed,” says Dr. Anthony Masi, medical director of Midwest Sleep Diagnostics and the SSM Sleep Disorders Center at DePaul Health Center. “Untreated, significant sleep apnea is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke disease and diabetes.”
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing is interrupted during sleep, sometimes for a minute or more. These episodes can occur hundreds of times throughout the night, resulting in fragmented sleep patterns that leave the individual feeling inexplicably tired during the day.
While sleep apnea is more common in men than women, the same predisposing factors play a role, explains Dr. Oscar Schwartz, medical director of the Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital Sleep Disorder/EEG Center. “Women who gain weight at any age can have a predilection to sleep apnea because obesity is a risk factor by itself. There are anatomical things such as big tonsils and nasal problems that can increase risk, as well as hereditary factors,” he says. Menopause also tends to contribute.
The primary symptom of sleep apnea is often noted by a spouse or bed partner: snoring. Although women may not snore as loudly as men, snoring, followed by short periods of silence and then a gasp or snort as respiration resumes, is the typical pattern.
“Sleep apnea is diagnosed the same way in women and men with a sleep study, typically performed in a sleep center,” Masi says. “The study will determine if sleep apnea is present. Most of the time, patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea are placed on nasal CPAP therapy during their initial sleep study.”
Masi is referring to Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, which has been the gold standard sleep apnea treatment for several years. Delivered through a small mask placed over the nose, slightly pressurized air is delivered throughout the night to maintain an open airway and prevent respiratory interruptions.
Other treatment options include weight loss, the use of dental appliances that help prevent the airway from being obstructed by the tongue and changes in sleep position. “For people with positional sleep apnea, doing things to avoid sleeping on one’s back can be helpful,” Schwartz says. “Some people are really creative. I know a couple women who turn their bras around and put something in the bra cups so they can’t sleep on their back.”
Because sleep apnea is relatively easy to treat once diagnosed, it’s worthwhile to ask your physician about a sleep study if you suspect you or your bed partner may suffer from this disorder. And don’t forget to turn your bra around in the morning!