You already know you’re not as sharp after losing a few nights’ sleep, but what you probably don’t know is that if your snoring results from sleep apnea, you might actually be doing permanent, possibly irreversible, damage to your brain.
Weird, but true.
Losing Brain Matter
Simple sleep deprivation is bad enough, but sleep apnea goes a step further because it causes short pauses in your breathing, depriving your brain of vital oxygen while you sleep.
While it sounds like a plot line from Star Trek … The Incredible Shrinking Brain … scientists are now finding that this oxygen deprivation actually decreases the volume of gray matter in your brain, the part responsible for short-term memory and information processing!
What’s more, sleep apnea also decreases the amount of white matter – the part of the brain that carries nerve impulses and allows different areas to ‘talk’ to each other. Yikes!
Losing Your Smarts
It sounds crazy, but sleep apnea actually lowers cognition and intelligence in both adults and children. It hits:
- Memory, especially short-term recall
- Attention span
- Motor skills
- Perceptual organization
Risking Your Health
The other problem with sleep apnea is it really does a number on your general health:
- Lowered testosterone
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Motor vehicle accidents
The Good News
You can reverse a lot of the damage if you treat the sleep apnea.
In some studies, patients’ gray matter was substantially restored after only three months of treatment, while white matter was almost completely restored within a year. Which is really reassuring to know.
You can treat sleep apnea fairly easily with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. These are small machines that have a mask that fits over the nose and/or mouth and provide continuous pressure in order to keep the airway open.
It’s a pain in the neck to adjust to wearing a mask to bed, but you owe it to your gray matter to protect it. Once you realize you’re actually losing brain volume because your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, the decision becomes much easier.
Is This You?
- Are you normally sleepy during the day, even after getting enough sleep?
- Is it hard to stay awake when you stop moving? For example, during work meetings, when you sit down on the sofa, when you put your kids down for bed?
- Do you snore loudly at night?
- Do you have frequent pauses in breathing while you sleep?
- Are you chronically fatigued?
- Does your partner complain about your snoring?
- Do you have a hard time waking up in the morning, hitting the snooze repeatedly?
- Is it tough to concentrate and get things done at work?
- When leaving work, do you sometimes arrive home without really remembering the drive?
- Are you overweight?
- Is your blood pressure high?
- Do you have trouble breathing through your nose?
- Is your collar size 17 inches or more?
- Are you a restless sleeper?
- Do you have restless leg syndrome?
Okay, we all know that a quiz can’t really tell you whether you have sleep apnea, but if you answered ‘yes’ to a lot of the questions, and in particular, the first four questions, you really need to get a sleep study done.
- Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. (Yes, I know you hate doctor appointments. I hate them, too. Everyone does. But there are brain cells at stake here.)
- Your doctor will either order a sleep study or send you to a specialist who will order one.
Sleep studies are no big deal … inconvenient, but it’s only one night of your life. You usually go to a sleep center where they hook you up to a bazillion wires. Then you sleep comfortably … ha! … while a technician watches over you. Sounds creepy, I know, but it’s no huge deal.
- If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor will most likely hook you up with a company that provides CPAP machines. A technician will calibrate it for you, and you’ll be good to go.Different types of CPAP machines are available.
The machine takes a little getting used to, but you will absolutely love waking up in the morning rested, refreshed and raring to go.
And your gray matter will thank you.