Chances are, if you’ve done any reading on the importance of sleep, you know about the proverbial eight hours.
“Are you getting enough sleep?”
“Are you getting your eight hours every night?”
The scientific literature and public health information is obsessed with the amount of sleep we get.
But not the quality of our sleep.
The scary truth is that millions of people suffer from some degree of sleep apnea, yet aren’t aware of it.
A Swedish study estimated that as many as half of women aged 20 to 70 have some degree of sleep apnea. (Sleep apnea is believed to affect more women than men, especially petite women.)
The Dangers of Sleep Interruptions
Sleep apnea is a condition where your sleep is interrupted all night because your airway becomes blocked.
A blocked airway can happen pretty easily if you think about it: as we approach deep stage sleep, all the muscles in the body fully relax, including the muscles around the airway.
When the tongue fully relaxes, it expands, and if you have a small airway, it can easily become blocked. The heaviness of the jaw can also contribute to the blockage.
What this means for you: while you’re sleeping, the unconscious brain immediately notices low oxygen levels and has to bounce the body out of deep sleep by tensing up the muscles enough to reopen the airway so that you don’t suffocate.
Our physiology makes this blockage extremely common, and it happens multiple times per hour, all night long, without millions of us never knowing about it.
Sure, you might be unconscious for eight hours, but those eight hours consist of breathing pauses, near suffocation, and bouncing out of deep stage sleep all night long, you’re missing out on sleep’s critical health benefits.
The Restorative Benefits of Deep Stage Sleep
Deep stage sleep is different from all the other stages of sleep and is key to reversing the aging process and preventing disease.
Only in deep stage sleep is human growth hormone (HGH) excreted. HGH lets children grow, but in adults, HGH reverses the aging process by burning fat, tightening skin, building muscle, and enabling the body to remove toxins from the brain.
Deep sleep is the only time where your body gets to repair damage and stress on your body. It allows your brain and body to rejuvenate and repair themselves.
Missing out on deep stage sleep can contribute to:
- Anxiety and depression
- Weight gain
- Short-term memory loss
- Heart disease
- Learning disabilities
- Accelerated aging process
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
Why Sleep Interruptions Don’t Get Diagnosed
We focus on quantity, not quality. You can sleep for eight hours each night and be bouncing out of deep stage sleep all night long. Eight hours is meaningless if you’re not able to stay in deep stage sleep due to breathing pauses (called apneic events).
We don’t know any different. If you had fuzzy vision, you might not know any better until someone put glasses on you. The eyes degenerate so gradually that when you do go to the optometrist and get glasses, all of a sudden everything is crystal clear. That crystal clear vision is something that many people lack when it comes to sleep. We simply don’t know anything else.
Doctors don’t see it. Feeling tired is rarely, if ever, the chief complaint. How often do you come in to the doctor saying, “I think I have sleep apnea.” Just like the gradual decline of vision and hearing, most of us think it’s normal to lose energy as we age (it’s not). Doctors have no quick way of determining whether someone is suffering from sleep apnea, the same way they can administer a quick blood test or vision test. The diagnostic for sleep apnea takes eight hours, requires a sleep lab, and costs $3,000 to $4,000. Slight and moderate sleep apnea especially fly under the radar because many people who are otherwise healthy overcompensate so well that they don’t show signs of sleep apnea, even though the damage is still being done and won’t catch up with them until later in life.
We’re not objective about our own sleep. Even if you feel like you sleep great, you can’t judge the quality of your own sleep because you’re unconscious while you’re sleeping. People with sleep apnea stop breathing several times per hour each night and wake up with zero recollection of everything they went through during the night. The amnesiac effect of sleep prevents us from knowing anything at all about what is going on in our bodies while we sleep. Not even your sleeping partner can answer this question — because they’re asleep too.
One of my patients, Jen, didn’t believe anything was wrong with how she was sleeping.
“I sleep 8 hours most nights. If I’m tired, well, I’m 45 years old, I work full-time, and I have two kids!”
This is why the eight hour trap is so pernicious. We think we sleep “enough” and we accept being tired as a normal part of the aging process.
Jen was a heavy grinder, which is a red flag for sleep apnea.
Once Jen got a sleep study and we treated her for her moderate sleep apnea, she was blown away.
It was like putting glasses on someone who had fuzzy vision their whole life, but never knew anything different.
“I’ve never knew what I was missing out on. It’s like I’m a different person. It’s not just the increased energy — it’s more the emotional side of it. I’m not as stressed or frantic. My anxiety has gone away.”
So when it comes to sleep, think quality, not quantity. Instead of focusing on getting eight hours every night, ask your dentist if you grind your teeth (a red flag for sleep apnea) or if you snore (there’s an app you can use for this).
Whether you’re young or old, fit or overweight, a snorer or not, taking steps to find out whether you’re entering and staying in deep sleep every night will help you live a longer, healthier life.
Mark Burhenne DDS