I was diagonsed with sleep apnea as an underweight twenty one year old.
I didn’t think I “fit the profile”, but the doctor assured me that many young people with no risk factors were diagnosed with sleep apnea these days. Both my nurses fell into this category. They said they looked healthy but had awful sleep growing up and said the CPAP machine changed their lives.
I asked the doctor: “Why are younger people getting sleep apnea nowadays?”
The answer: “It’s probably not enough people were tested before.”
As soon as I was diagnosed, I started researching. Why would someone without excess fat have problems breathing? It makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective. Is it a genetic defect? Is there a historical equivalent?
I’ll discuss everything I found later on, but my conclusion is that many people today can’t breathe when they’re asleep because they aren’t breathing right during the day. Persistent shallow breathing causes stress and muscular and nervous imbalances, imbalances soft palate collapse and deviated septums, which doctors think is what obstructs the airways. Even if someone doesn’t have complete airway obstruction, stress-induced restricted breathing carries over into the night, resulting in poor sleep, daytime sleepiness, and low blood oxygen levels. Airways can also be obstructed by excess mucus in the body.
I don’t think this is a controversial theory. I think doctors would agree that stress is a factor.
But we differ on the solution. Most sleep specialists conclude that a misbehaving soft pallate or deviated septums are unchangeable, structural, genetic issues that must be resolved through surgery. They agree stress creates problems, but not these kinds of problems. Patients could meditate all they wanted to, but if they’re throat structure was suboptimal or if they had a deviated septum, it wouldn’t matter much.
But from my own experience (I was told my deviated septum and soft pallate collapse likely caused my sleep apnea), I can tell you that yogic techniques go MUCH farther than you would think. Even the best sleep scientists in the world are way too quick to jump to expensive and invasive perscriptions like surgery and CPAP machines.
I realized sleeping + stress + CPAP is the same as sleeping + relaxed + no CPAP. The CPAP was just forcing air through my constricted, congested, airpipe. The less constricted I was, the less I needed it. I still used it occasionally, but I also tried to let my shitty sleep quality serve as a gateway to introspection. If I woke up feeling awful, I’d ask myself: was I stressed last night? What did I eat that caused this extra congestion? And I’d let the fog motivate me into doing kapalabhati so it wouldn’t happen again. It took a few months of work, but I haven’t touched my CPAP in over a year and my sleep is so much better without it.
THE THREE MAJOR CAUSES OF SLEEP APNEA AND THEIR REMEDIES
1. CHRONIC CONGESTION
This sounds obvious. Of course mucus blocks breathing. But this was completely overlooked when I went to the sleep doctor.
I guess they think that if you knew you were really congested all the time, you would tell them. But most people don’t realize how congested they are. It’s not until they try a practice like sutra neti that they finally realize how much excess mucus is trapped in their sinuses. They just adapt to it, living life with less oxygen.
If NyQuil gives you better sleep, seriously consider congestion as a major factor.
If this is you, sutra neti will help fix the functioning of the sinuses, and kunjal will clear excess mucus in the stomach and lower respiratory track. Diet and digestion must be addressed to reduce mucus production. This is a huge topic with many existing resources. I recommend the book Ayurvedic Cooking for Self Healing by Vasant Lad.
I’ll just leave you with some basics: avoid over-eating, avoid an excess of the sweet taste (this includes rice and wheat), and incorporate more spices in your diet.
2. MUSCULAR AND NERVOUS IMBALANCES IN THE RESPIRATORY SYSTEM
I’m not saying this is enough evidence to ditch the CPAP. But I think it should be enough to TRY OUT alternative methods.
Stress causes nervous irregularities and loss of muscle tone in the tongue and throat which can cause airway obstruction.
Pranayama is great at restoring integrity to the airway muscles and nervous system.
I especially recommend ujjayi breathing to balance the throat, cultivate proper breathing patterns, reduce stress, and “destroy all phlegm related diseases”. If you want more, add kapalbhati, which strengthens the respiratory muscles, eliminates congestion, and cultivates proper breathing.
Yoga poses like Gomukasana and Matseyasana will help open the stretch the chest and lungs and direct prana towards those areas, regulating the autonomic functioning of those areas.
Excess stress is the root cause of most modern disorders. Anytime I see a chronic health issue that suddenly skyrocketed in cases in the last 20 years, I’ll always bet it’s related to either stress or modern environmental and agricultural toxins.
Stress constricts the throat, the nasal cavity, the chest, the lungs, and the diaphgram, making breathing difficult and shallow. I doubt stress is the sole cause of anyone’s sleep apnea, but if you already have muscular imbalances in the throat, stress will take you from unsatisfying sleep to full fledged sleep apnea.
Here are some ways to see for yourself how stress impacts breathing:
- Try yoga nidra. If your breathing suddenly becomes free and easy, you know you are breathing shallowly the rest of the day.
- Imagine taking deep, full, breaths into the pelvis. This is uncomfortable for many of us, as we hold a lot of muscular tension in the torso. If you feel any discomfort or the need to contort your body in order to take a full breath, chronic stress is impacting your breathing.
Ujjayi pranayama, recommended above, is great for stress reduction and the throat muscles.
Other effecient practices I would recommend are yoga asanas and yoga nidra.
Like diet, stress in an immense topic that relates to all aspects of the human system– emotions, intellectual attitudes, genetics, subconscious behaviors, day to day lifestyle, posture. I’ll write about it later on, but if you want to go deep into it, I highly recommend Alexander Lowen’s great book, Bioenergetics, to see how stress, muscular tension, breathing patterns, and psychological attitudes are all interrelated.
If you don’t want to go deep into it, I recommend practicing pranayama, yoga, exercising, and taking life less seriously.
Best of luck on your journey.