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Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which a person's upper airways become partially or completely blocked. This obstruction causes the person to experience pauses in breathing while they sleep, usually due to the relaxation of the muscles in the back of the throat. These are the muscles that help keep the airways open.
There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. In people with central sleep apnea, breathing disruption relates to brain function, and it is usually a symptom of a severe illness.
In this article, we focus on obstructive sleep apnea. Keep reading to learn more about the causes and diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea, as well as six home remedies that may help.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, an estimated 18 million adults and 10–20% of children who snore in the United States have obstructive sleep apnea.
People with mild sleep apnea may also benefit from medical treatment, but the evidence on this subject remains inconclusive. There is no clear cutoff point for classifying sleep apnea as severe rather than moderate and for determining whether it requires medical treatment.
The following are examples of some natural remedies that a person can use at home, usually to treat mild obstructive sleep apnea.
1. Weight loss techniques
For some people, carrying excess body weight can increase the likelihood of sleep apnea. In particular, excess fat in or around the neck can potentially impair a person's breathing and worsen sleep apnea.
Losing excess weight could be a good first step in treating obstructive sleep apnea. Some steps that a person can take to lose weight include:
- reducing the intake of processed and fast foods
- engaging in regular physical activity for at least 30 minutes each day
- minimizing the consumption of high sugar beverages
2. Healthful lifestyle changes
In addition to lifestyle changes that promote weight loss, other health changes could help a person reduce the symptoms of sleep apnea.
Some examples of healthful lifestyle changes include:
- refraining from smoking, which can lead to swelling in the upper airways, resulting in sleep apnea
- refraining from drinking alcohol as it can relax the throat muscles and increase the likelihood of snoring
- taking over-the-counter allergy medications or nasal decongestants to increase airflow by reducing swelling and fluid buildup in the nasal passages
These habits can help reduce the number of apnea episodes and the associated symptoms in some people with sleep apnea.
3. Side sleeping position
One of the most common approaches to home remedies for sleep apnea is a body positioning pillow or another similar device. These positioners work by keeping a person from sleeping on their back. People who have obstructive sleep apnea are more likely to have episodes when they sleep on their back.
One example is a side sleeping backpack, which is a vest-like clothing item that has a bulging part on the back. If a person tries to roll over onto their back when wearing the backpack, they cannot maintain the position and must turn to one side or another.
Some people may prefer to make their own positioner by securing a tennis ball or another item onto their back that keeps them from turning while sleeping.
However, in one small study, half of the participants snored more frequently when using the positioner. Chronic snoring can damage the tissues in the upper airways, so this may not be a good solution for everyone.
4. Raise the head of the bed
Sleeping with the head of the bed at an angle of about 60 degrees may help reduce the number of apnea episodes. This solution may be effective for people who have sleep apnea that worsens when they lie on their back but who find it difficult to sleep on their side.
People will be able to achieve this position by sleeping in a bed or chair that has an adjustable upper portion. Alternatively, they can use pillows or purchase a body wedge for their torso to keep their head elevated.
5. Didgeridoo playing
While this remedy may seem unusual at best, some data exist to back it up. A small study featuring in BMJ found that participants who played the didgeridoo had reduced daytime sleepiness and apnea episodes compared with people who did not play.
It is important to note, however, that this study had just 25 participants.
The didgeridoo is a wooden wind instrument from Australia. Playing the didgeridoo requires using a special breathing technique that may help strengthen the muscles in the upper airway. In this way, practicing the instrument may reduce sleep apnea episodes.
6. Oral or dental appliances
Another home remedy for sleep apnea is wearing an oral device that holds the tongue or jaw in a certain position to help facilitate better breathing.
However, in most cases, an oral device will require a prescription, and a dental professional who has training in sleep medicine will need to fit it.
Doctors have identified several factors that contribute to obstructive sleep apnea. These include:
- being aged 40 years and older
- being overweight
- having a family history of sleep apnea
- heavy alcohol consumption
- having a large overbite
- having a large tongue, tonsils, or uvula
- having a small jaw
Most people who have obstructive sleep apnea snore. They may have a partner or loved one who tells them that they snore loudly. Even if a person with sleep apnea does not snore, they may experience other symptoms, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, problems concentrating, or memory problems.
A person may wish to discuss their symptoms with a doctor, who will usually recommend a sleep study. The study may require the person to spend the night at a special facility, where medical professionals will monitor how often they stop breathing while sleeping, as well as their oxygen saturation and heart rate. However, home sleep tests are also a possibility and are increasing in use.
A person should note that snoring does not necessarily mean that they have sleep apnea.
Although snoring is an indicator of sleep apnea, a sleep study can help a doctor determine whether a person has enough episodes of disordered breathing, or stoppages in breathing, for sleep apnea to be present.
If a person has problems with excessive daytime sleepiness — for example, if they fall asleep at work or school — they should see their doctor. They should also see their doctor if a loved one witnesses them frequently stopping breathing while they sleep.
Sleep apnea can be a serious condition. When a person stops breathing, the heart works overtime to pump blood through the body to provide the oxygen that the body does not get during apnea episodes. This extra work can damage the heart and lead to high blood pressure and heart rhythm problems.
Traditionally, doctors treat sleep apnea by having a person wear a special device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine fits over the mouth or nose and provides extra positive airway pressure to keep the airways from collapsing while a person sleeps.
Doctors may also recommend surgery to treat sleep apnea, especially in children with enlarged tonsils and adenoids. A doctor can remove these larger structures at the back of the throat to improve airflow.
Sleep apnea is a condition that can affect a person's quality of life and physical health.
Home remedies, such as healthful lifestyle changes and elevating the head at night, may help reduce episodes of apnea.
However, if a person has moderate or severe sleep apnea, they should see a doctor. They will probably need to wear a CPAP device to support their breathing.