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What is sleep apnea?

13 Jan 2023 • 3 min read

Sleep apnea, or sleep apnoea, is a sleep disorder that causes frequent interruptions in a person’s breathing as they sleep.

Derived from the Greek word apnea, meaning “breathless”, sleep apnea is when your breathing stops and starts while you are asleep.1

This results in a lack of oxygen, which activates a survival reflex waking you up just enough to resume breathing. Although this reflex keeps you breathing, it also disrupts your sleep cycle.

This guide will highlight all you need to know about when somebody experiences sleep apnea and what treatment options are available.

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Types of sleep apnea

There are three different types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)


Central sleep apnea


Mixed sleep apnea


Sleep apnea is defined by the level of severity, too:

  • Mild sleep apnea – this is defined by someone who would have between 5 and 15 apnea or hypopnea (low breathing not sustaining your oxygen level) events per hour.
  • Moderate sleep apnea – somebody with moderate sleep apnea would have between 15 and 29 events per hour.
  • Severe sleep apnea – severe sleep apnea means somebody would wake up 30 or more times in an hour or stop breathing, and/or wake up 240 times or more during a full eight hours of sleep.5

Sleep apnea symptoms

Some of the most common symptoms partners may notice include noisy breathing and loud snoring, which might indicate someone has sleep apnoea.

But the most obvious sign to look out for is recurring pauses in breathing or breathing that is frequently disrupted by snorting or gasping.

Although episodes of sleep apnoea only happen when you’re asleep, it can significantly affect your day-to-day life.

The resulting tiredness often means you may find it hard to concentrate, experience memory loss, feel irritable, depressed and are at risk of falling asleep during the day.

This can be especially dangerous if you are driving.

It’s also important to note that the different types of sleep apnea can also present different symptoms. For example, night sweats and getting up to urinate are often signs that you could have obstructive sleep apnoea.6

Causes of sleep apnea: who is more at risk?

Sleep apnea can occur in anyone, from infants and children to older adults.

However, those older (for example, over 40) and those overweight or obese have an increased risk of experiencing all types of sleep apnea.

It’s also more common in people who are Black, Hispanic or of Asian descent.7

Additionally, people with large necks have an increased risk, larger than 43cm/17 inches.8

Those with large tonsils, adenoids, or tongues, narrow airways or a small lower jaw are also more susceptible.

Smoking and drinking alcohol before you sleep can also mean you’re more likely to experience sleep apnea.

Other factors that can contribute to sleep apnoea include women that have been through the menopause.

Post-menopausal women may experience snoring and OSA due to the changes the body is going through, which causes the throat muscles to relax more.9

Taking sleeping tablets, tranquilisers, and other sedative medicines may also relax the throat, leading to OSA.

People experiencing nasal congestion caused by nasal polyps or a deviated septum may also be more likely to develop sleep apnea.

What are the long-term side effects of sleep apnea?

As well as leaving sufferers tired, sleep apnea can result in a variety of health issues if left untreated.

These include high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeats, and heart attacks.

Sleep apnea treatment

If you think you may have sleep apnea, make an appointment with your GP to discuss your symptoms.

They will usually be able to recommend suitable treatments. These could range from lifestyle changes using a device (such as a CPAP machine) to help keep your airway clear or, in rare cases, surgery.

Lifestyle changes for sleep apnea treatment


Sleep apnea breathing devices


Vitamin treatments


When is surgery recommended?

As a last resort, doctors may suggest surgery to treat severe obstructive sleep apnea caused by underlying issues that can’t be improved by lifestyle changes, supplements or devices.

Some of these include enlarged tonsils or adenoids, as well as severe obesity.14

The final say

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes interruptions to a person’s breathing while they sleep.

Symptoms can include noisy breathing, snoring and night sweats, as well as feeling unrested and fatigued the following day, difficulty concentrating and memory problems.

Treatment options include CPAP breathing machines, lifestyle changes and, in severe sleep apnea cases, surgery.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. 

Last updated: 13 January 2023


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