Sleep

Sleep Ability: What You Don’t Know May Kill You

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Something as simple as how you breathe while you sleep affects everything from your mood to your susceptibility to disease.

by Dr. Burhenne

Sleep Ability: What You Don’t Know May Kill You

You’re likely aware of how important it is to know what your cholesterol and blood pressure are. These indicators are essential in predicting the state of your health today and in your later years as well.

Here’s something else that you should be checking up on and verifying over your lifetime that might be just as important.


Sleep: Innate But Not Guaranteed

How we sleep determines so much of our health. It is such a critical function that when we’re deprived of it, our health rapidly deteriorates.

It’s a good thing, then, that we instinctually know we need it. As soon as that alarm clock goes off, we’re clinging to the pillow wishing it wasn’t so. Yet when I get a whiff of a tasty cheeseburger, there’s nothing instinctual in me that reminds me to be concerned about my cholesterol.

Interruptions in your breathing during sleep can interrupt your sleep to such a degree that it impacts every part of your waking life – from your mood to your susceptibility to disease.

One night of interrupted sleep wreaks havoc on our energy levels, mood, and hormone regulation. Years of interrupted sleep accelerates the aging process and makes us more susceptible to all kinds of disease.

If you think there’s no way your sleep is being interrupted, consider this: Humans are the only animals that can choke, thanks to the bend in our breathing tube that we developed during our evolutionary journey to becoming an upright species. This breathing tube is called the airway, and it begins where we breathe in air from our nose and mouth and extends downwards behind the throat and into the lungs.

This kink in our airways means that both air and food have to take a 90-degree turn on their way to the lungs and stomach. The human airway is roughly the size of a straw. Imagine taking a straw and bending it 90 degrees – it’s starting to get quite narrow at that bending point, isn’t it?

interrupted sleep breathing
Breathing is easily interrupted while we sleep, thanks to how narrow and crowded the human airway is.

Our airways typically serve us just fine during our waking hours. This is because your airway is held open by the taut muscles in your neck and throat. Your tongue, also a muscle, is pulled forward. Nothing is blocking vital oxygen from flowing in through your nose, through to the back of your tongue, down your throat, and to your lungs, providing your bodily tissues with essential oxygen.

This picture changes drastically when we fall asleep. As we approach the deep stages of sleep, the muscles that normally keep your airway propped open enter a deep state of relaxation. The tongue relaxes and falls back at the top of your throat. The airway narrows further. This is when the airway gets so narrow that breathing starts to become compromised. Imagine pinching that straw I mentioned earlier closed.

This is when breathing gets interrupted. Your body has to interrupt deep sleep to tighten up your muscles and get you breathing again.

Why Everyone Needs to Know Their Sleep Ability

Your ability to keep breathing at night for uninterrupted sleep is what I call your sleep ability. Sleep ability is your airway’s ability to stay open and allow airflow even with the narrowing that happens during sleep. Since sleep ability is what determines how well you’re able to breathe at night, it’s what determines the quality of your sleep, and thus, the quality of your waking hours.

You can’t live your best life without your best night’s sleep. So many of my patients were functioning at 50, 60, or 80% of their potential before they verified their sleep ability and got treatment. Don’t let this be you. Find out what your sleep ability is. Just by being human, you are susceptible to a compromised airway. No one is immune.

How to Find Our Your Sleep Ability

interrupted sleep breathing

Just remember CAR:

Consider: 90% of people with sleep breathing interruptions don’t know it. Even if you’re healthy and feel fine, consider the size of your airway and your sleep ability. Take control of your sleep health by considering your sleep ability and that you could have breathing interruptions.

Assess: You’ll need the help of a friend or a smartphone. It’s impossible to assess our own sleep ability since we’re, well, unconscious! Ask your partner, family member, or a friend to observe you for ten minutes after you’ve been asleep for about an hour. Ask them to answer these questions: are you making noises? Are you grinding your teeth? Snoring? Breathing strangely? Tossing and turning? All of these could be signs that your sleep is being interrupted. There’s also an app for this that listens to you while you sleep and records your number of interruptions.

Referral: If you suspect your breathing is being interrupted while you sleep, you’ll need a referral to a sleep specialist. Your dentist can get you this referral and tell you if you grind your teeth, which is a red flag for sleep disturbed breathing. Ask your doctor about your sleep ability and have this discussion with him or her.

Sleep health is the foundation for the health and happiness of the rest of your life.

Don’t underestimate the power of finding out your sleep ability. It could save your life.

Mark Burhenne DDS

read next: The Complete Guide to At-Home Sleep Tests, Plus My Favorite Way to Track Sleep

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