Normal patterns of breathing during sleep can include slight irregularities. Pauses in breathing are common as one falls asleep or awakens, and respiratory rapidity occurs during the dreams. These are all normal.
Of more concern to overall health is sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by the repeated cessation of breathing during sleep, sometimes for long periods of time. Known as apnea episodes or apnea events, these respiratory pauses normally last for a period of 10 to 20 seconds, but can be as long as a full minute. Sleep apnea has been associated with a host of health conditions such as heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure.
The severity of an individual’s sleep apnea can be measured in a number of ways. Use of the Apnea Index involves measuring the number of apnea episodes during one hour of sleep. For example, 10 apnea episodes per hour of sleep would give an Apnea Index of 10. Severity is diagnosed by combining Apnea Index and duration of events. Readings of twenty 10-second apnea episodes per hour and above would be diagnosed as moderately severe sleep apnea.
Also used in sleep apnea diagnosis is measurement of oxygen saturation, or amount of oxygen in the blood. Low oxygen levels mostly indicate sleep apnea. Oxygen deprivation in apnea sufferers is caused by the pauses in breathing, which result in the body taking in insufficient oxygen while simultaneously allowing existing oxygen in the blood to become depleted. All organs suffer from insufficient oxygen levels and the brain is particularly more sensitive.
During a single night’s sleep, individuals with apnea may have their sleep interrupted by hundreds of these episodes. Often, sufferers become so chronically exhausted that they don’t even realize they have stopped breathing, attributing daytime tiredness to insomnia. Many are only made aware of heavy snoring by their bed partners’ complaints. Occasionally, apnea sufferers may become aware of a pause in breathing if they wake up suddenly in a sitting position or from a short nap. When combined with daytime sleepiness, snoring is a primary symptom of sleep apnea. If recorded during sleep, many people with sleep apnea get surprised at the frequency and heaviness of their snoring, snorting, and gasping.
In 2005, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research conducted a study on breathing pauses during sleep in middle-aged French men. Subjects were a group of 850 active middle-aged men (22-66 yrs). In that, 41 (5.4%) reported periods of pauses in breathing during sleep at least once a week and they were older and heavier than those who reported no pauses, and most of them had larger waist and neck measurements. Daytime sleepiness, snoring, history of stroke and high blood pressure were common in subjects with breathing pauses during sleep.
Anyone suspecting sleep apnea in themselves should contact a sleep specialist, as the condition leads to a number of health risks.