THE BLOG

WANTED: A Truly Good Night's Sleep

With sleep apnea, it's more complicated than practicing meditation, taking Epsom salt baths to relax, using white noise machines, lighting aromatherapy candles, turning off electronics and donning soothing eye masks to create a sound slumber.
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When my son was born, sleep deprivation was a given. Between infant nighttime feedings and creatures that go boo in adolescent nightmares, my husband and I were regularly on call.

Fast forward, my son is now a teen, and I'm a highly symptomatic peri-menopausal mother.

As a later in life mom, I regularly preach the importance of self-care, but last summer, I was thrown a curve ball. I was diagnosed with moderate obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), after having a sleep test when routine bloodwork revealed an elevated hemoglobin level. I was relieved not to have a more serious disease, but I soon realized that OSA is way more than snoring and yawning, and is not to be ignored. According to WebMD, "When you have this condition, your breath can become very shallow or you may even stop breathing -- briefly -- while you sleep. It can happen many times a night in some people. Obstructive sleep apnea happens when something partly or completely blocks your upper airway during shut-eye. That makes your diaphragm and chest muscles work harder to open the obstructed airway and pull air into the lungs. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp, snort, or body jerk. You may not sleep well, but you probably won't be aware that this is happening. The condition can also reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs and cause irregular heart rhythms."

I'm not someone who throws in the towel (or blanket) readily, and I don't plan to now, but this has proven a real challenge. It's hard for those who have not experienced it to understand. It's not that you don't sleep... it's that you never feel refreshed.

My pulmonologist said the standard and most effective protocol for sleep apnea treatment is to wear a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask. According to Medicinenet.com, "Patients with obstructive sleep apnea treated with CPAP wear a face mask during sleep which is connected to a pump (CPAP machine) that forces air into the nasal passages at pressures high enough to overcome obstructions in the airway and stimulate normal breathing. The airway pressure delivered into the upper airway is continuous during both inspiration and expiration."

To date, I've been through five different masks and have found an obstacle with each.

When I first saw them and was asked to choose, I broke out into tears. Sleep with this for the rest of my life?! I took a selfie wearing one, which I shared with a few friends. One readily replied... "Do not post that on Facebook!" -- not that I had planned to, but it reaffirmed how I felt I looked... like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs -- minus the bars on my mouthpiece.

Because I am a mouth breather, I initially wore a mask that covered my nose and mouth, but it leaked air often when I turned over, creating a whooshing noise that awoke me. I tried variations of it by different companies, and my doctor said I should go for a nasal pillow mask and learn to keep my mouth shut at night. This went somewhat better, but the stiff plastic straps going across my cheeks grew uncomfortable, inspiring me to make my own straps using moleskin pads. I was able to live with that, but grew less tolerant, feeling sweaty at night from the straps.

A friend referred me to a dentist with an expertise in sleep apnea, and he made me a custom oral device to sleep with that advances your jaw gradually forward to help prevent your tongue from closing up your airway. During my first visit, he took out a tongue chart and explained that there are four types of tongues, and I have the worst anatomical structure... a large tongue with a small airway.

Who knows how long I've had sleep apnea and didn't know?! But, what I have learned is that as we age, any muscle in the body can become flabby, including your tongue. So, I decided to research the subject, and uncovered a host of tongue and throat exercises that I practice, with the hope of improved nighttime tongue control. I also learned that sleeping with your head elevated is advantageous, and I discovered the genius Mattress Genie by Contour Living. The motorized bed wedge, which easily slips under your mattress, elevates by remote control the head of your bed (any size and weight up to 1,000 pounds), alleviating the need to sleep on a pile of pillows, and is way less pricey than an electric bed.

I will need to have another sleep test to see how I'm now making out, but hopefully I've hit on the combination that will do the trick.

I'd always taken sleep for granted. In college, I could easily pull all-nighters cranking out term papers under deadline. And, when my mother-in-law complained profusely about not sleeping, I didn't grasp how that felt. Now that I'm living it, it's become a frequent topic of conversation for me, always hoping someone might offer up a sleep apnea success story.

Interestingly, Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, has just written and published a book called The Sleep Revolution. A self-proclaimed "sleep evangelist," she states, "It's the gateway through which a life of well-being must travel. Sleep affects our mental health every bit as profoundly as it does our physical health." And, she's taken on the crusade of empowering others to sleep as they should, including launching a campaign this spring called #SleepRevolution College Tour, to educate students on campuses about the importance of sleep and the dangers of sleep deprivation based on recent scientific findings.

With sleep apnea, it's more complicated than practicing meditation, taking Epsom salt baths to relax, using white noise machines, lighting aromatherapy candles, turning off electronics and donning soothing eye masks to create a sound slumber. My hope is that the medical establishment will take on sleep apnea in a bigger way and endeavor to come up with still other solutions. There are those in my personal social circle and beyond who suffer and have not treated it because the options don't feel viable. And, insurance companies aren't always fully cooperative, as you typically don't snap your fingers and nail the solution out the gate. Surgery for some may help, as can weight loss, but it's not a surefire cure.

I asked my dentist why sleep apnea seems almost epidemic (there are even groups devoted to it on Facebook), and he said that over the years, the structure of the human body, including the jaw, has evolved. Primates had larger mouths than modern man, yet our tongues and airways serve the same function.

Ms. Huffington, if you're reading this, perhaps you might include the plight of sleep apnea patients in your #SleepRevolution. According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 18 million American adults have it, and it affects children as well. That's nothing to snore at. We, like others who are sleep starved, would be forever grateful to regain a night of restorative zzzs in a way that we can live with, literally.