Putting our bad bedtime habits to bed

We have a good idea about how much exercise we need and what food is good, but many of us know very little about sleep

Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 08:24

She says that medication has a role to play – especially for people who are extremely distressed. In these cases, people can’t start thinking rationally about the problem until some of their sleep is restored.

The most common physiological sleep condition is sleep apnoea, which affects about one in 25 men and one in 50 women in Ireland. Some suggest that 5-10 per cent of the population have some degree of sleep apnoea and this percentage is increasing due to rising obesity levels. Some experts say that 90 per cent of sufferers remain undiagnosed.

Sleep apnoea is a respiratory disorder which occurs during sleep. Essentially, there is a narrowing of the throat muscles to such an extent that the person experiences a transient choking spell.

When this happens, the brain is immediately aroused, stimulating the throat muscles to re-open and allow breathing.

“Many people with sleep apnoea will stop breathing for between 10-30 seconds 50 times a night,” says Prof Walter McNicholas at the Sleep Clinic in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin.

Sufferers of sleep apnoea snore but snoring in itself isn’t always an indicator of sleep apnoea.

Up to 50 per cent of sufferers of sleep apnoea also have high blood pressure and are at a higher risk of stroke, heart attack and diabetes. The condition runs in families but being overweight and unfit are also causal factors.

Most people with sleep apnoea will complain about being chronically fatigued during the day. They will also talk about the poor quality of their sleep at night.

“There are performance and safety consequences for people with undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnoea and at the extreme end of the problem, sufferers are taking a risk when driving,” says McNicholas.

In fact, sleep apnoea became a specifiable condition on driving licences earlier this year and those with the condition not receiving treatment need a doctor’s certificate to say they are fit to drive.

Knock-on effects
The good news is that once diagnosed (either during overnight monitoring in a sleep clinic or with specialised portable sleep- monitoring devices), sleep apnoea is relatively easy to treat and has knock-on effects of reducing the amount of high blood pressure medications some patients require.

The treatment of choice, according to McNicholas, is the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device which is worn by the patient every night.

“I have thousands of patients wearing CPAPs and the typical response is that they wouldn’t go to bed without them. The masks are linked by tubing to a small airway pressure device which transmits air throughout the night. “Once a patient adapts to the treatment, it works straight away,” according to McNicholas.

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