When you wake up in the morning, you probably don’t give much thought to what went on when you were conked out. It’s safe to assume that you were, you know, breathing, right?
Not necessarily. In fact, with a common condition called sleep apnea—which can affect up to seven percent of adult men—you might actually stop breathing in your sleep, explains David M. Rapoport, M.D., research director at the Mount Sinai Health System Integrative Sleep Center.
Picture this: Your throat is a collapsible tube, like a garden hose. When you’re awake, the muscles of your throat contract to stiffen your airway and keep it from collapsing when you suck in air. But when you’re asleep, this process doesn’t work as well. Your airway occasionally collapses when you try to take a breath, meaning you’re not getting in any oxygen.
These stops—or apneas—last at least 10 seconds, but are typically 20 to 30 seconds or longer. When your brain gets the signal that you stopped breathing, it resumes its regularly scheduled programming.
Up to four of these an hour is actually considered normal, says Dr. Rapoport. But once you get above five to 15— and in severe cases, even 60 per hour—you’re dealing with sleep apnea, a seriously disruptive and dangerous condition.
Long-term, sleep apnea has been linked with irregular heartbeat, hypertension, and even stroke and heart attack.
Early treatment can help reduce your risks. But first, you need to be aware that something might be up. Here, 7 signs that you might have sleep apnea.
SLEEP APNEA SIGNAL: YOU’RE TIRED ALL THE TIME
Exhaustion is one of the biggest symptoms of sleep apnea. When you stop breathing and your brain sends out its distress call, you’re actually waking up–even if you don’t realize it.
“Your brain has to be awake for a full 30 seconds in order to recognize that it’s actually awake,” says Michael Breus, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and SleepScore Labs advisory board member.
But waking up—even if it’s just for a few seconds—can disrupt your sleep cycles, leaving you more exhausted the next morning.
Now, exhaustion is pretty nonspecific, and it’s common in lots of other conditions. That’s why doctors look for a constellation of other symptoms (see below), which can help signal that your exhaustion may be apnea-related.
SLEEP APNEA SIGNAL: YOUR SNORING IS EARTH-SHATTERING
Next to daytime sleepiness, loud snoring is the second major marker of sleep apnea. Not everyone who has sleep apnea snores (and not everyone who snores has sleep apnea), notes Dr. Breus, but it’s an extremely common symptom.
Breathing into a partially collapsed airway causes a vibration, which makes the snoring sound, says Dr. Rapoport.
This can point to a blockage that predisposes you to sleep apnea. But it’s actually the pausing between snores that can be more concerning: This is the part where you’re not breathing.
“If there’s no air moving, there can’t be any noise,” says Dr. Rapoport.
Along with severe snoring, your bed partner may notice a “gasping, snorting, or struggling” as you return to breathing, he says. This can be pretty dramatic and alarming for someone you sleep next to, but you probably won’t notice, he adds.
SLEEP APNEA SIGNAL: YOU FALL ASLEEP ANYTIME, ANYWHERE
If you can’t help but doze off in a dark movie theater or you consistently pass out on the couch watching TV, this could point to some extreme apnea-related exhaustion.
“Since your sleep is being severely disturbed, most of these people fall asleep at the drop of a hat,” says Dr. Rapoport. “They say, ‘Oh, it’s normal for me to fall asleep whenever I go to a movie or go to a show.’ But it’s not normal to fall asleep when you don’t want to.”
And this doesn’t just bring on the wrath of your fellow moviegoers: It can cause some deadly consequences, too. This instant ability to fall asleep is one of the major risks with driving, Dr. Rapoport adds.