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Doctors Reveal the Best Sleep Apnea Self-Care Tips + the 1 Thing You Should Never Do

Turns out a popular over-the-counter sleep apnea remedy can actually make symptoms worse

If you’ve been snoring more than usual recently, or you’re feeling groggy even after a full night of shuteye, sleep apnea could be to blame. This common condition can tank your sleep quality. And if it’s left untreated, it can wreak havoc on your overall health. That’s why sleep apnea self-care is so important.

“Sleep apnea can have profound impacts on our daytime functioning,” says Swetha Gogineni, MD, a pulmonology, critical care and sleep physician from UCLA Health’s Santa Monica Pulmonary Sleep Clinic. “It can lead to us feeling tired and affect our concentration, memory development and general wellbeing. Additionally, moderate to severe sleep apnea has been associated with various health conditions including high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, strokes and mood disorders.”

Luckily, effective treatments are available that can ease sleep apnea symptoms and lessen the risks. We asked sleep medicine experts to share the telltale signs, the best treatment options and which sleep apnea self-care strategies actually work.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing is disrupted during sleep. Someone with sleep apnea may stop breathing for 10 seconds or more at a time, several times per hour. This can cause oxygen levels in the blood to drop.

“There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea,” Dr. Gogineni says. “Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction of the airway itself. In central sleep apnea, there is a miscommunication between your brain and your respiratory muscles. Essentially, your brain doesn’t send the signal telling you to breathe, leading to the pauses in breathing.”

An illustration of the two types of sleep apnea, which can be treated with self-care strategies
Blueastro/Getty

Sleep apnea symptoms you shouldn’t ignore

“Signs that that you may have sleep apnea include loud snoring, abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking, morning headaches, daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating during the day,” says Chris Allen, MD, a sleep medicine physician and sleep science advisor at Aeroflow Sleep. Your partner may also notice that you’re snoring a lot, or that your breathing stops and starts during the night.

If you wear a health tracker such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch, you may spot subtle changes to your sleep metrics. “While they aren’t validated to diagnose sleep apnea, smart watches and other health trackers can provide helpful clues,” Dr. Gogineni says. “Your device can notice if your oxygen level is dropping when you’re sleeping, or if you’re frequently waking up at night — both signs that your sleep may be disrupted.”

Heart rate variability on your health tracker is another hint, says Audrey Wells, MD, Sleep Medicine Advisor at CPAP.com and board-certified sleep and obesity medicine physician. It can signal that your body may have been in “fight-or-flight mode” during the night. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to schedule an appointment with a doctor ASAP.

“Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder,” says Dr. Wells. “If this were a condition that dropped someone’s blood oxygen levels and caused a disruption in brain function during wakefulness, people would be going to the emergency room. But because it happens during sleep, there’s this blind spot. The result is diagnosis can be delayed, or treatment can be under-prioritized. And over time, the sleep disruption and the drops in blood oxygen level will erode your health.”

mature woman sleeping during the day on a couch, which is a symptom of sleep apnea
Olga Rolenko/Getty

Why women don’t prioritize sleep apnea self-care

Up to 90% of women with sleep apnea don’t even realize they have it, experts estimate. So why do women tend to overlook their sleep apnea symptoms? There are a few key reasons:

1. Misconceptions about risk

For a long time, sleep apnea was believed to be a men’s health issue. In fact, until the 1990s, most sleep apnea research centered around men, Dr. Wells notes. But sleep apnea is incredibly common among women, too. Around half of all women between the ages of 20 and 70 will experience sleep apnea.

While men have a slightly higher risk, the gap closes with age. “Menopause is where the risk for women to have sleep apnea becomes about that of men,” Dr. Wells says. That’s due to hormonal changes and weight gain during the perimenopausal and postmenopausal periods.

2. Confusing symptoms

It’s easy to blame sleep apnea symptoms on other conditions such as stress or insomnia. That’s especially true if menopause has been messing with your sleep schedule. “People often assume that snoring and feeling tired is ‘just part of aging,’ and they don’t seek evaluation,” Dr. Gogineni adds.

3. Shorter bouts of breathing trouble

Women also experience sleep apnea during a different part of the sleep cycle than men, which can make it harder to catch. “Women tend to have more prominent airway obstruction during REM sleep, or dream sleep,” Dr. Wells says. And because you’re only in REM sleep for about 20-25% of the night, less of your total sleep time is disrupted. “That can give the impression that overall sleep apnea is mild, when it might be quite severe in REM,” Dr. Wells cautions. So even if you’re only waking up a few times a night, or you’re not snoring all night, it’s still worth talking to a doctor.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with a sleep medicine physician. He or she can do a sleep study and recommend the best course of treatment. If you don’t have an accredited sleep center near you, you can order an at-home sleep apnea test, which includes an online appointment with a specialist and sensors for overnight monitoring.

Sleep apnea treatment options

The good news? If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, there’s a wide range of treatment options available. The most well-known therapy is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), in which a device uses constant air pressure to keep your airways open while you sleep. “CPAP therapy and other PAP therapies are the gold standard for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea,” Dr. Wells says.

A mature woman wearing a CPAP device while she sleeps in bed
A CPAP device can help keep your airway open while you sleep.grandriver/Getty

Other treatment options include:

  • Oral appliances to keep the lower jaw or tongue from blocking the airway
  • A surgically implanted device that stimulates the hypoglossal nerve to keep the airways open
  • Surgical removal of the tonsils and adenoids
  • Lifestyle changes such as weight loss, changing sleeping positions, quitting smoking or avoiding alcohol

5 sleep apnea self-care tips

Because sleep apnea can have far-reaching health implications, it’s important to talk to a doctor about the best treatment options. In the meantime, there are a few sleep apnea self-care steps you can take to breathe easier.

1. Switch to side sleeping

“The most effective thing you can do at home while you’re waiting to be evaluated is trying to sleep on your side,” Dr. Gogineni says. This sleeping position helps to keep your airways open. If you’re not usually a side sleeper, a sleep apnea pillow can help support your head and neck during side sleeping. If you have to sleep on your back, use a wedge pillow to elevate your head.

Related: 13 Best Pillows for Side-Sleepers to Relieve Neck and Shoulder Pain

2. Start a sleep journal

“Document your sleep habits, snoring and any awakenings to help your doctor understand your symptoms,” Dr. Allen says. While this won’t directly relieve sleep apnea, it can help you spot patterns and communicate your symptoms more effectively when you meet with your doctor. (Discover more of our best sleep tips.)

Check out the short video below for a guide to tracking your sleep:

3. Talk to your dentist

When you’re having sleep issues, your dentist may not be the first person you think to call. But he or she may be able to create an oral appliance called a mandibular advancement device to reposition your jaw while you’re sleeping and help keep your airway open, Dr. Gogineni says.

Just steer clear of DIY sleep apnea mouth guards. “I don’t recommend the boil-and-bite mouth guards, because the bulk of those tends to push the tongue back and make the situation worse,” Dr. Wells says.

4. Sing along to your playlist

A study in the International Journal of Otolaryngology and Head & Neck Surgery found that 20 minutes of singing exercises each day significantly improved snoring and sleepiness among people with sleep apnea. So turn up the music belt out a few of your favorite songs.

mature woman practicing sleep apnea self-care by singing to music with headphones
Westend61/Getty

5. Take a brisk walk

A study in the journal Sleep found that people with sleep apnea who got 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week significantly lowered their apnea-hypopnea index (AHI), a measure of the severity of sleep apnea. That may sound daunting, but you can reap the benefits by breaking it up into a 20-minute stroll each day.

For an easy guide on brisk walking (whether outside or at home), watch this video:


For more ways to sleep better starting tonight:

This Simple Timing Trick Can Help Stop Someone From Snoring, Top Sleep Expert Says

Experts Reveal How to Tap Into the Benefits of Walking Barefoot for Less Pain + Deeper Sleep

Doctors Are “Prescribing” Hypnosis for Sleep, IBS and More Health Woes: How It Works

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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