Discover 5 Natural Approaches to Treat Sleep Apnea

Weight Loss, Sleep Position, and Exercises May Help

A man wears a large CPAP mask. Getty Images

There are some people diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea who wish to discover natural approaches to treat the condition. The most common therapy, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), may seem intrusive and artificial. Learn about some of the natural alternatives that may help to relieve snoring and sleep apnea.

It could be argued that sleep apnea itself is a natural part of aging. It certainly becomes more common as we become older.

This may be due in part due to the loss of muscle tone in the tissues lining the airway. Weight gain can make sleep apnea worse, which often occurs with advancing years. In addition, women have 10 times the risk of sleep apnea starting with the onset of menopause. However, younger people have sleep apnea too, and it can cause significant medical problems and distress.

Just because something naturally occurs doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t intervene to improve health and well-being. For example, tooth decay occurs naturally. Bacteria can breakdown food particles between our teeth and this may contribute to bad breath and cavities. Few people would argue that we stop brushing our teeth and allow our teeth to naturally decay and fall out. It’s good to have teeth and it is similarly good to sleep better.

Nevertheless, it is understandable if some see a CPAP machine as artificial, as it certainly is at least that.

It may seem like a life-sustaining ventilator, even though it is less invasive and is not. Strapping a mask on with a hose that extends to a device that generates a constant airflow to improve breathing and sleep may seem like something out of science fiction. As a result, some with sleep apnea elect to put it aside.

In a strict sense, other interventions should likewise be put aside as “unnatural” treatments. An oral appliance made by a dentist and worn at night to move the jaw and tongue forward is similarly not natural. External nasal strips and nasal valves should be avoided. Surgery seems disruptive to the naturally occurring anatomy, even if it is contributing to the condition. Importantly, there are no medications proven to be effective to treat sleep apnea.

So what’s left? Some natural ways to improve snoring and sleep apnea include:

  • Weight loss

Some people have worsened sleep apnea due to being overweight or obese. Weight loss can help. It is often recommended that the goal should be to achieve a normal body weight. However, a 10% decrease in weight may impact your degree of sleep apnea. Not everyone who loses weight will cure their sleep apnea though, due to other factors.

  • Saline rinses for allergies

Allergies can contribute to nasal congestion and this may decrease airflow within the airway. Rather than a river of air coming in through the nose, just a trickle or stream is able to pass.

As a result, the tissues within the throat may vibrate due to turbulent airflow (causing snoring) or fully collapse (leading to sleep apnea). Clear nasal discharge, sneezing, itchy eyes, and congestion may be signs of allergic rhinitis. Treatments with saline rinses or sprays can be highly effective. Saline can be made with water, salt, and sometimes baking soda and is harmless and natural.

  • Sleep on your sides or raise your head

Sleep apnea is often worsened by sleeping on the back. This supine position allows gravity to shift the jaw, tongue, and soft palate into the airway. Many people find it preferable to sleep on their sides, and those with sleep apnea often learn to do just that. Positional therapy can help to reinforce this positioning so that you don’t slip onto your back while asleep. It can also be helpful to raise the head of the bed or sleep at an incline with a sleeping wedge.

  • Exercises to strengthen the airway

There is some evidence that the airway can be strengthened through exercises to reduce snoring and sleep apnea. Myofunctional therapy may be especially effective among children to remodel the airway. In addition, studies show that learning to play the didgeridoo or other woodwind instruments may improve the airway’s muscle tone and reduce these conditions.

  • Avoid alcohol and smoking

Finally, if you want a natural way to reduce your risk of sleep apnea: stop smoking and don’t drink alcohol. Smoking can irritate the airway and contribute to snoring. Alcohol is a muscle relaxant and it may cause the airway to become more collapsible and contribute to sleep apnea. Therefore, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol may help you to breathe and sleep better.

If you continue to experience symptoms of sleep apnea despite pursuing natural treatments, speak with your doctor about additional therapy options. Despite CPAP and oral appliances being artificial, they are highly effective treatments and they can help you sleep well with benefits to your overall daytime function and long-term health.

Source:

Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 5th edition, 2011.

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