Our body controls breathing both automatically and voluntarily during the time that we are awake. In contrast, whilst we sleep the voluntary mechanism disappears and breathing is practically on “autopilot”. Normal breathing during sleep should be relatively quiet and uneventful. This means that fresh air enters the lungs without obstructions several times per minute, thus maintaining the body’s metabolic requirements during sleep. Loud respiratory noises or episodes of acute shortage of breath during sleep may indicate the presence of a respiratory disorder.
The first clue that something might be wrong is snoring during sleep. This may signal a temporary narrowing or blockage of the upper airways due to relaxation of the airway muscles and pressure from surrounding tissue. These narrowing’s leads to a reduction of air inflow to the lungs called sleep hypopnea, while a complete blockage of those airways is called sleep apnea. In an apnea, or temporary pause in breathing the muscles of the upper airway relax when you fall asleep. If you sleep on your back, gravity can cause the tongue to fall back. This narrows the airway, which reduces the amount of air that can reach your lungs. Snoring is always due to some degree of narrowing in the upper airways, but it doesn’t always necessarily indicate full-blown obstructive sleep apnea hypopnea syndrome. But a person who snores should, without question, follow up with a physician due to possible health risks seeking medical care. A less common breathing problem is known as central sleep apnea. This condition is characterized by a temporary, sometimes cyclic lack of respiratory drive that indicates an absence of proper signaling from the brain to the respiratory system. During sleep, the body “forgets” to breathe for abnormally long periods of time, resulting in irregular respiration. These disorders interfere with sleep quality and cause daytime sleepiness, performance issues and serious health problems; such as hypertension, cardiovascular issues or strokes. A more serious disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing during sleep. The airway repeatedly becomes blocked, limiting the amount of air that reaches your lungs. When this happens, you may snore loudly or making choking noises as you try to breathe. Your brain and body becomes oxygen deprived and you may wake up. This may happen a few times a night, or in more severe cases, several hundred times a night. It can make you wake up in the morning feeling tired or unrefreshed even though you have had a full night of sleep. During the day, you may feel fatigued, have difficulty concentrating or you may even unintentionally fall asleep. This is because your body is waking up numerous times throughout the night, even though you might not be conscious of each awakening. A sleep medicine physician can diagnose obstructive sleep apnea using an in-lab sleep study or a home sleep apnea test. Sleep apnea is manageable using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, the front line treatment for sleep apnea, oral appliance therapy or surgery.
Some of the things you can do yourself to try and cure such breathing related sleep disorders or at least aim for symptomatic relief include alternate nostril breathing technique which is a big part of yoga. To practice, start by placing your right thumb on your right nostril, and breathe in through the left nostril. You will then take your right ring finger and place it over your left nostril before exhaling from the right nostril. You can also try diaphragmatic breathing that is a technique allowing your diaphragm to do all the work while you breathe through your nose and focus on your lungs filling with air. The method can be done lying down or sitting up.
For the technique, keep your shoulders back and one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. When you breathe deeply for two seconds, your tummy will stick out and look slightly bloated. Feel the air expand your stomach, and then breathe out through the mouth. It is also suggested that decreased snoring, less congestion and clearer breathing was seen in people that slept with a humidifier in their bedrooms causing a much more comfortable sleep environment. Elevating your head while sleeping might be able to help lower snoring and can be a viable solution to mild discomfort.
Many people suffering from sleep apnea and heavy snoring also have other medical problems that interfere with normal breathing, including weight gain, as it increases the risk for developing sleep apnea making it much more likely if you are gaining weight that you’re essentially gaining weight on the inside of your neck also, which affects your throat muscles and breathing capabilities. Acid reflux/congestion and chronic coughs are also major contributors to sleep apnea episodes. Sleeping on your back, has been shown to make snoring and symptoms worse because it presses your tongue and palate tissue against the back of your throat. These should be remedied and if so required medical help should be sought.