Sleep-related breathing disorders can significantly affect sleep quality making it difficult to get a good night’s rest, which is needed for optimal health and performance. Some conditions have only a limited impact on health, while others can have more long-term consequences when not properly managed. Therefore, it’s crucial to keep a pulse on how your body handles the symptoms to know when you may need to make a change.
In this article, we’ll review different sleep-related breathing disorders and how they can specifically impact your health. We’ll also share helpful tips on ways to manage sleep-related breathing disorders to improve your overall health and sleep.
Breathing Dreaming Connection
Correlations between obstructive sleep apnea and nightmares1 have been made as far back as the year 1037. More recently, physicians have hypothesized that low oxygen levels may cause nightmares, with the aforementioned study supporting this correlation.
Someone with moderate to severe apnea could experience episodes multiple times per hour, resulting in frequent disruptions. These interferences not only prevent proper rest but influence our psyche. When this occurs during the REM stage, which is when we dream, these episodes are known to interrupt our experiences during these moments of subconsciousness and even influence dream subject matter1.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive apnea2 is a condition in which breathing starts and stops involuntarily for brief periods. Individuals who snore or wake up tired may have sleep apnea, which occurs when the muscles relax in the back of your throat, obstructing your airway.
The muscles in this area support your tonsils, uvula, soft palate, and the sidewalls of the tongue and throat, and when these muscles relax, your airway narrows.
When you don’t get enough air, your blood’s oxygen levels decrease3 . When your brain senses your inability to breathe, it momentarily wakes you, but most individuals don’t remember these brief rousings.
Need more info? Check out our complete guide to sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children and Infants
Pediatric obstructive sleep apnea is similar to adults in that the child’s airway is partially or completely blocked during sleep, rousing them and interrupting periods of rest.
The main difference between the adult condition and the pediatric type is that adults typically experience daytime drowsiness, whereas children are more likely to struggle with behavioral issues. Often, the underlying cause in adults is obesity, whereas the common underlying issue in children4 is the enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids.
Enlarged tonsils often don’t represent an underlying condition; however, they may be removed surgically. Identifying these issues when they arise is essential to preventing complications that could affect a child’s development.
Need more info? Check out our full guide for sleep apnea in children.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central apnea causes the same issues as the obstructive type, in which the airway becomes partially or entirely blocked for short periods, repeatedly, during the night. However, it’s brought on by a different cause.
Central apnea5 happens when the brain stops sending the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing. Central apnea is less common than the obstructive type.
Central apnea can arise due to other conditions like stroke, heart failure, or sleeping at high altitudes. This variety’s treatment might involve healing existing conditions to improve heart health, lower blood pressure, or using a device to assist breathing at night.
Learn More: Central Sleep Apnea Treatment
Snoring could be a symptom of obstructive apnea, or it could just be noisy breathing related to other causes. The issue is typically more common in men or in people who are overweight, so the problem can sometimes be treated with diet and exercise.
Some additional causes of snoring6 include:
- Blocked nasal airways, particularly in individuals who suffer from allergies, sinus infections, or deviated septums
- Impaired throat and tongue muscles
- Significant throat tissue (which could be linked to obesity or large tonsils)
- Alcohol and drug use
- Sleep deprivation; the muscles in your throat can relax if you’re overly tired.
Sleep-related hypoventilation is when breathing during the night decreases, leading to lower blood oxygen levels7 and an increase in carbon dioxide. The disorder can appear alongside insomnia or headaches upon waking and can exist with either the obstructive or central varieties.
Treatment for the disorder depends on the type:
- Idiopathic Hypoventilation, in which there is still no identifiable cause.
- Congenital Central Alveolar Hypoventilation is a rare condition causing shallow breathing that can, at times, lead to blueish skin and pauses in breath during sleep.
- Comorbid Sleep-Related Hypoventilation, in which another medical condition causes the issue, for example, a spinal injury or brain disorder.
Sleep-related hypoxemia is caused by low levels of oxygen in the blood. When oxygen levels decrease, and carbon dioxide levels don’t sufficiently rise to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of sleep-related hypoventilation disorder, the condition is known as sleep-related hypoxemia disorder8. Sleep-related hypoxemia is commonly caused by health issues that affect breathing, like respiratory diseases and lung conditions.
Treatment for this issue usually involves looking at pre-existing factors, like lung disease, asthma, or smoking. Obesity9 has also been thought to be a contributor by many physicians. The fat is thought to decrease lung volume to the point of closing the lung units, resulting in disruption of normal breathing. Some studies9 show that oxygen levels drop as BMI increases.
Catathrenia, also known as sleep-related groaning10, is characterized by repeated abnormal breathing and vocalization. An individual will inhale a long breath and exhale slowly, creating a monotone, groaning noise. When this happens, the individual is unconscious.
While this is known as a disorder, it’s uncommon and not known to present any health risks. However, the habit can be highly annoying or frightening when you’re not expecting a loud sound in the middle of the night.
Treatment could include a CPAP device, which would provide a continuous stream of air pressure to the individual, typically mitigating the issue.
How To Treat Sleep Breathing Disorders
How can you treat sleep breathing disorders?
Breathing-related sleep disorders could significantly affect one’s life, making treatment imperative. Behavior modifications for these conditions include:
- Sleeping with your head elevated or with a wedge pillow
- Avoiding the supine position during rest
- Maintaining positive rest hygiene and preventing further rest deprivation
- Resisting ethanol and sedative drugs
- Switching to an adjustable bed
- Dental appliance
- Weight loss
- Deviated septum repair
- Positive airway support device or a CPAP machine
- Health management
Treatment could require significant lifestyle changes and many of which lead to necessary weight-loss techniques and adherence to devices aimed at supporting proper breathing, which may require a lifetime commitment. Some individuals have explored surgical options in order to create a more stress-free and convenient alternative.
- BaHammam, Ahmed S., Almeneessier, Aljohara S. “Dreams and Nightmares in Patients With Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Review”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6817494/. 2019.
- “Sleep Apnea”. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Last modifed March 24, 2022. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea.
- “Obstructive sleep apnea”. MedlinePlus. Last modified March 1, 2018. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/obstructive-sleep-apnea/#description.
- “Sleep Apnoea”. Queensland Children’s Hospital. Last modified November 2016. https://www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/fact-sheet-sleep-apnoea/#:~:text=Children%20with%20sleep%20apnoea%20have,the%20enlarged%20tonsils%20and%20adenoids.
- Rana, Abdul M., Sankari, Abdulghani. “Central Sleep Apnea”. National Library of Medicine. Last modified January 23, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK578199/.
- “Snoring – adults”. Medline Plus. Last modified July 19, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000720.htm#:~:text=When%20you%20sleep%2C%20the%20muscles,causing%20the%20sound%20of%20snoring.
- Schwab, Richard J., Sunwoo, Bernie Young. “Chapter 100: Sleep-Related Hypoventilation Syndromes”. Access Medicine. Webpage accessed July 10, 2023. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com/content.aspx?bookid=1344§ionid=81196238.
- “Sleep-related breathing disorders with a focus on obstructive sleep apnoea”. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/6ea49796-0272-4182-b5bd-b93445bd0f06/aihw-phe-294-Obstructive-sleep-apnoea-OSA.pdf.aspx?inline=true. 2021.
- Tulaimat, Aiman, Littleton, Stephen W. “The effects of obesity on lung volumes and oxygenation”. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28284316/#:~:text=Abstract,to%20translate%20into%20clinical%20practice. 2017.
- Alonso, Jose., Camacho, Macario. et al. “Catathrenia (Nocturnal Groaning): A Social Media Survey and State-of-the-Art Review”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5359339/. 2017.
Rachael is a content writer for Sleep Advisor who loves combining her enthusiasm for writing and wellness.