Sleep apnea occurs when airways collapse, compromising breathing and preventing oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. The resulting oxygen drop and adrenaline surge impair sleep and can increase the risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attacks and can lead to death, if untreated.
Many people have sleep apnea and don’t know it. Signs to look for include snoring, which indicates that you may experience further airway collapse. You may also experience anxiety, stress, depression, or acid reflux or indigestion, since apnea causes chest pressure that pulls acid out of the stomach. This pressure may pull blood from the arms and legs, leading to dehydration. If your neck circumference is 17 inches (for men) and 16 ½ inches (for women), you’re more likely to have sleep apnea. Because poor quality or insufficient sleep disrupts the release of the metabolism-controlling hormones leptin, ghrelin, and cortisol, sleep apnea also can cause you to be overweight.
For treatment, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines—masks that blow air into the back of the nose and hold it open—are most common. However, lifestyle changes can help. The more tired you get, the more you snore, and the worse sleep apnea becomes. I recommend getting at least seven hours of sleep per night. Avoid sedative medications and drinking alcohol less than three hours prior to going to bed, which can negatively affect sleep. Eliminate cigarettes, which inflame airways and make them narrower, and use over-the-counter saline nasal spray if you have allergies. Sleeping on your side, rather than back, can help too, because your tongue is more likely to fall into the back of your throat when you’re on your back.
–Carol Ash, DO, ABSM, Medical Director at the “Sleep for Life” program at Somerset Medical Center, Somerset, New Jersey
In homeopathic medicine, sleep apnea indicates a fundamental imbalance in the body. Homeopathic treatment not only helps treat the apnea symptoms, but also works to bring the whole person back into balance.
One of the most common remedies used to treat people with sleep apnea is sulfur. People who can benefit may be slightly overweight and their bodies are generally hot and itchy, especially in bed at night. They should take 30c sulfur once a day for a week and see if the apnea, as well as other related conditions like digestive problems, improves.
A vigorous exercise program is another alternative therapy, especially if the patient is overweight. Overweight people are likely to have excess weight distributed throughout their bodies, including the face and neck, increasing the chance of upper-airway constriction. Losing 10 or 15 pounds can reduce the number of apneas, and exercise helps combat the cardiovascular effects of apnea. Another therapy involves breathing exercises, which can be used to tone the upper airway. Try practicing a yoga technique called kapalbhati, a series of bellows breaths performed by exhaling forcibly through the nose, daily. I also suggest a nutritional supplement called 5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP. It is believed that sleep apnea may be related to decreased serotonin levels, and some doctors feel that 5-HTP, a serotonin precursor, may help to eliminate apnea. Take a 100–300 mg capsule before bed.
–Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman, ND, LCSW, Northwest Center for Homeopathic Medicine, Edmonds, Washington
In Chinese medicine, sleep apnea is perceived as related to the lungs, which govern the whole channel of breath—the chest, airway, mouth, and nose. Treatment focuses on the body’s inner channels and pathways, and everyone’s treatment will differ depending on individual constitution and weaknesses causing the sleep apnea.
To treat apnea with acupuncture and guasha (a technique in which I scrape against the skin with a porcelain Chinese soup spoon or other special tools, creating a petechia, or a breakage of the surface blood vessels), I try to activate the acupoints associated with the lungs, which opens up the lung channel in the body and releases evils in muscles, tendons, and sinews. These techniques help bring blood flow and energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”) to the lungs. With acupuncture, it’s important to focus on the chest and upper back because those are the areas most commonly associated with lung function. I may also stimulate points on the lower abdomen, or dan tian, because in Chinese medicine that is the source of breath and is related to the lungs.
An acupuncturist can show you specific points and techniques (acupressure) to help open up the pathways associated with the throat and lung. Pressing these points daily, even if you can’t get to an acupuncturist every day, can really help. I also strongly recommend removing allergens from one's home, especially from the sleeping environment, to reduce inflammation in the airways. Sufferers might consider getting allergy-reducing mattress and pillow covers and dusting regularly.
–Christine Davis, L.Ac., Shen Shen Health & Harmony, Chicago