Understanding Sleep Disordered Breathing

Published March 7, 2016

We human beings spend almost 30% of our lives sleeping. It turns out that sleep is a very important part of our overall health. As strange as it sounds, we don’t really know why we sleep, we only know that when we don’t get an adequate amount, bad things happen: We’re drowsy at work and aren’t as productive as we could be; we get into more traffic accidents; and finally our health begins to suffer, with consequences as severe as heart problems and early death.

Since the 1970’s, we’ve known about a spectrum of problems related to difficulty breathing during sleep. These problems are currently grouped under the heading “Sleep Disordered Breathing” (SDB). The common thread that ties the spectrum together is that people with SDB do not achieve the deeper levels of sleep needed for a good restorative night’s rest. This is because they need to toss and turn and awaken in order to keep breathing!

Here is a breakdown of the SDB spectrum:

Simple Snoring

Everybody with SDB snores, but not everybody who snores has SDB. That’s because there is such a thing as “simple snoring.” People snore because their throats relax and close a little during sleep. Sometimes snoring happens because of nasal congestion or because someone is overweight and their neck heavy enough to cause the throat to close briefly while breathing during sleep. Simple snoring is that kind of snoring that doesn’t wake the snorer, and allows him or her to enjoy a good night’s sleep without interruption.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

OSA is a bit more serious than simple snoring. By definition, people with OSA stop breathing for at least 10 seconds while making efforts to inhale, usually accompanied by blood oxygen levels dropping. The brain senses this as a signal that the person should wake up and breathe, or at least rouse enough to toss and turn and attempt to resume normal breathing. People with OSA are frequently drowsy during the day, and many report feeling irritable and other personality changes.


If your doctor determines that you have SDB, the general approach you’ll take is to “start small” and try to eliminate the factors that contribute to your sleep problems: You may need to lose those extra pounds; you may need to cut back on alcohol consumption or other medications that may affect your breathing during sleep; you may need to try sleeping with a mouthpiece, which has been shown to be effective for mild SDB problems.

If none of these therapies help, the most effective means of dealing with SDB is a device called a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP devices gently blow air into the sleeper’s throat, enough to keep the area from collapsing during sleep, eliminating snoring and allowing a restful and restorative night of sleep.

Taking Control of Your Sleep

Clinical studies have shown that patients with more severe forms of SDB are substantially better off after they undergo treatment. People report better energy levels and work productivity. More importantly, there is substantially less high blood pressure and hospitalizations for other health problems as well.

Anything you spend a third of your life doing is important enough to pay attention to! If you aren’t getting a good night’s sleep, you can do yourself and your loved ones a huge favor by investigating whether the problem may be Sleep Disordered Breathing or any less serious cause.  Sleep tight!