Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

EXPLAINER: What is sleep apnea, and how deadly is it?

By Ching M. Alano, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 10, 2023 8:00 am

Many probably didn't know much about sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder, until heartthrob David Licauco opened up on social media about having scary breathing lapses while sleeping 

"(Breathing) stops for about 30 seconds straight, about 24 times in an hour, while I'm sleeping," David revealed in an interview. "I came across the late Rico Yan's TikTok video, he had sleep apnea." 

Sleepless over Fidel

Fans are sleeplessly in love with David Licauco who plays the suave Fidel in the trending GMA teleserye Maria Clara at Ibarra El Filibusterismo. Many got shocked when David publicly announced he could have sleep apnea. "It's been my insecurity since it started when I was 16 years old," he confessed. "It's been 11 years. When I wake up the next day, I'm in a bad mood. So, yung mga nasungitan ko, alam na siguro kung bakit."

"My brain takes long to warm up, compared to other people. I will go to the doctor for a checkup again and will probably get an operation soon because hirap na hirap na ko," he added.

Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars films, lost her battle with sleep apnea. Madonna was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, but the Material Girl didn't want to be attached to a machine forever so she sought treatment. NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2011 and was told he could die. His loving partner had to live with Shaq's annoying snoring (he was also gasping for air in the middle of the night) until he opted for a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine for the rest of his life. 

What the experts say

How deadly is sleep apnea? Instead of losing sleep over it, we decided to know more about sleep apnea straight from the mouths of experts. 

First off, sleep apnea is defined as a potentially serious sleep disorder where breathing stops periodically during the night (lapses in breathing can occur up to 10 seconds or more and can happen up to a hundred times a night in severe cases), thus preventing the body from getting enough oxygen.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea which happens when the throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway (windpipe) during sleep.

"It could be primary snoring (humihilik) with no symptoms, but if accompanied by waking up at night gasping for breath, this is bad," said Dr. Cecilia Jocson, sleep medicine specialist and head of the Lung Center of the Philippines Sleep Laboratory and Sleep Disorders Clinic, in an interview with Dr. Willie Ong, who classified snorers into normal and very loud snorers (those with OSA). 

"The soft palate in the tongue falls back so air can't pass through directly and oxygen level in the body drops," Dr. Jocson described what happens in sleep apnea. "This can happen many times during sleep. The brain detects your oxygen level is dropping so there will be brief arousals to recover the oxygen."

Doc Willie explained, "The brain knows you're in a delicate situation because you're losing oxygen. Good thing you wake up to remove the obstruction. But when you go back to sleep, this will happen again, the airway will collapse again."

Symptoms of sleep apnea

According to Dr. Jocson, among the symptoms of sleep apnea are loud snoring, restless (fragmented) sleep, so you wake up in the morning feeling stressed instead of rested, frequent urination at night, morning headaches, dry mouth, irritability, daytime sleepiness, and poor concentration. 

Doc Willie noted that those suffering from sleep apnea have common physical findings, such as enlarged uvula (fleshy extension at the back of the soft palate), hyperplastic soft palate, nasal congestion, nasal polyps, enlarged tonsils, small lower jaw, receded chin, neck size of 17 inches. 

They are also usually obese or overweight.

Sleep apnea is defined as a potentially serious sleep disorder where breathing stops periodically during the night.

Dr. Jocson stressed, "If not treated, there could be complications, like cardiovascular problems, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia, high blood pressure, memory impairment, depression, anxiety.

OSA could also lead to diabetes because of increased insulin resistance.

Doc Willie added, "It could also cause reproductive problems, like erection problems in males or reduced sex drive. And because of the poor quality of your sleep at night, you're sleepy and prone to vehicular accidents if you're driving."

Sadly, you might not even know you have this very common problem that's linked to heart disease and metabolic issues like diabetes. 

According to studies, sleep apnea typically decreases life expectancy by several years and increases the recurrent risk of heart attack or stroke. It can lead to sudden death from an irregular heartbeat due to episodes of low blood oxygen.

Doc Willie shares these facts and figures, "Around one billion persons worldwide have sleep apnea. In the Philippines, 3.8 million have obstructive sleep apnea. More males have it (around 24%), only 9% of females, and two percent of preschool children."

Who's at risk for sleep apnea?

Being overweight or obese tops the list of risk factors for sleep apnea. "A big tummy impedes breathing because it compresses the chest while sleeping," Doc Willie pointed out. "Age is also a risk factor as there's a predisposition to deposit fat in the neck as one ages."

Those with a family history of OSA are also at risk, Doc Willie added. "You have a higher risk if you have first-degree family members with sleep apnea." 

Alcohol and sleeping pills can also make one a likely candidate for sleep apnea. "Too much alcohol can cause  the throat muscles to temporarily relax, thus closing the airway and cutting off breathing momentarily," Doc Willie disclosed. "This is also true for those taking sleeping pills."

Treatment for sleep apnea

Surgery or tracheostomy (putting a permanent opening in the neck to the windpipe) almost always cures sleep apnea, but it can cause many complications. Other treatments work just as well, like the popular CPAP machine, which delivers a stream of oxygenated air into the airways through a mask and a tube. A mouth guard also helps by reducing the number of pauses in breathing, as well as the frequency and volume of snoring.

Then there are the supportive measures, according to Doc Willie, such as losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight, minimizing alcohol intake, and avoiding smoking. It's also important to make alterations to your sleeping position. Raise the head of your bed for better breathing and practice pursed-lip breathing to keep the airway open longer and allow stale, trapped air to be released.

According to studies, sleep apnea typically decreases life expectancy by several years and increases the recurrent risk of heart attack or stroke. It can lead to sudden death from an irregular heartbeat due to episodes of low blood oxygen.

Doc Willie showed us this easy breathing therapy: Breathe in through the nose for two counts. Pucker lips like you're blowing birthday candles. Breathe out through pursed lips two to three times as long as you inhale. Repeat.

Our good doctors couldn't stress enough the importance of good sleep. "We can prevent different illnesses if the quality of our sleep is good. We feel good every time we wake up. There's nothing like a good night's sleep."