Science of Sleep Part 3: Improving your overall sleep health

Published: Jun. 20, 2018 at 9:17 AM CDT
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It's the one major change you can make to improve most aspects of your life. Whether you're a shift worker, a parent or student, your sleep health is vital to your overall well-being.

If you suspect you're not getting quality sleep, you may want to look into getting a sleep study. That's what News 3's Noelle Bellow did and now she's sharing what she's learned from the experience.

Click here to watch Parts 1 and 2 of Science of Sleep

"Not all people who snore have sleep apnea, but just about everyone that has sleep apnea, snores," explained CHI St. Joseph Health Sleep Specialist Dr. Scott Spencer.

What's ironic, is it's actually the abrupt absence of snoring and the sound of gasping or coughing that might signify you have obstructive sleep apnea. During a sleep study, technicians wire up the patient from head to toe in order to study all aspects of their body during sleep.

"At the beginning when you were on your left side you had a little snoring. It was loud but it wasn't horrendous," explained CHI St. Joseph Sleep Center Supervisor John Childers. "But as soon as you moved onto your back and you entered REM sleep, all of these red lines started popping up on your chart, and those are your respiratory events. The blue lines underneath, are arousals or mini-awakenings."

Those mini awakenings happen when you stop breathing. It's actually the body signaling to the brain that there wasn't any oxygen flowing and they happen so quickly, you don't even realize it.

"A person has to be awake and alert for about 10 minutes before they can actually remember that they were in fact awake," explained Childers. "So most people with obstructive sleep apnea don't even know this is happening to their body."

If the study picks up a significant amount of those mini-awakenings in the beginning of a sleep study, it will likely qualify the patient for a split-night study which requires the technician to outfit them with a CPAP.

CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. It's a machine that constantly pushes air into your nose and throat to help you breathe easier while you sleep. There are a few different sizes of CPAP machines that vary from full mouth and nose coverage, to smaller nose pillow inserts. At first, the CPAP can be uncomfortable to wear and almost makes you feel a little claustrophobic.

"It is totally normal for first time users of a CPAP to want to take it off for a few minutes and readjust," explained Childers. "You sort of have to break through a mental wall."

However, once that happens and the technician adjusts the machine to the correct pressure, the snoring and mini awakening episodes are expected to lower significantly.

"Sleep is not about the quantity, it's about the quality," said Childers. "Somebody could be getting 8-10 hours of sleep and think they're doing just fine. But if you're having episodes that you don't even know about, your sleep isn't quality and you're going to have the same negative effects of not getting any sleep."

About 80% of people that have obstructive sleep apnea don't even know it. Some signs you shouldn't ignore include waking up with headaches consistently as well as getting up to go to the restroom multiple times a night.

Sleep Apnea is commonly found among adults, however it's not uncommon to see the condition in infants and teenagers as well.

There are a number of surgeries and procedures that can be done to fix obstructive sleep apnea and weight loss usually helps too. But, Childers says it's good to remember that it's hard to lose the weight without fixing your sleep first.

"It's sort of a catch-22. When you don't get enough sleep, during the day you're looking for things to pick you up like caffeine, chocolate and carbs, which of course are all associated with extra weight," explained Childers.

For most people, getting a CPAP is the best way to go. Your insurance will likely cover some, if not all of the cost depending on your plan; as long as you've had an official sleep study done in the last 6 months.

The CHI St. Joseph Health Sleep Center does conduct at home sleep studies as well for those who don't want to come into the lab. However, those at home studies do not measure nearly as much as the one's in the lab do, but they can give you some of the important answers you need.