Menopause. It’s often called “The Change” because not only do hormones shift, but lots of other things happen, too. Hair loss, weight gain, hot flashes and skin changes are just a few things women can look forward to when they hit this cycle of life. However, there’s also a big change that many women don’t talk about or actually even know about that is a very real and widespread problem during menopause.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
It’s a sleep disorder in which you stop breathing for short periods of time while sleeping. This happens hundreds of times each night. When it does occur, your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, and you wake up feeling tired and groggy. You may have trouble falling back asleep after waking up. In fact, some people who suffer from sleep apnea experience an average of four or five awakenings every hour throughout the night. Those with severe cases can wake up dozens of times in an hour.
That means you’re awake for at least 20 minutes or more out of every hour of the night! And if you’re like most people, you probably spend one-third of your nights tossing and turning trying to fall back asleep. That’s why so many people feel exhausted and worn down by the end of the day. They simply haven’t gotten enough rest or gotten quality sleep.
Signs of Sleep Apnea
Here are the most common signs of the condition:
- Snoring (especially loud snoring)
- Feeling sleepy during the day
- Frequent daytime naps
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor memory recall
- Weight gain
- Excessive sweating
- Fatigue/low energy
- Mood swings
- Insomnia symptoms
How Common Is Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder. There are millions of Americans suffering from sleep-disordered breathing. According to the National Institutes of Health, between 2 and 6 percent of adults over age 40 have mild obstructive sleep apnea. The number jumps to 10 percent among overweight individuals.
And according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, as many as 18 million Americans have been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Many times when people think about who gets sleep apnea, they think about men. Particularly overweight, older men. But, this blog is about women and sleep apnea, so you may be surprised to find that about 15 percent of middle-aged women have moderate to severe sleep apnea.
How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Women During Menopause?
As we mentioned, during menopause, estrogen and progesterone levels change. These hormones play a number of important roles throughout your body, of which one is to help you maintain muscle tone. When you think about muscle tone, you may think about your arms, legs or abs, but do you think about the tone of your throat muscles?
When your hormones change with menopause, the muscles and soft tissue in your throat are also affected. The result is drooping muscles that block your airway when you sleep. And, in turn, you are at a higher risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Another risk factor in developing sleep apnea related to menopause is weight gain and fat redistribution. In many cases, women gain more fat around their neck when their body weight goes up, increasing the size of the neck, which can further increase the risk of sleep apnea.
Hot Flashes and Sleep Apnea
Another part of menopause for most women is hot flashes. Hot flashes are caused by fluctuating female hormone levels and can last anywhere from a few seconds to several hours. For some women, these episodes become more frequent and intense as the women enter perimenopause.
A 2017 Mayo Clinic study connected hot flashes and sleep apnea. Researchers found that women who experienced hot flashes were three times more likely to develop sleep apnea. And, interestingly enough, those same women were also four times more likely to experience restless legs syndrome. Restless legs syndrome is another symptom of OSA.
The Symptoms of Menopause
Menopause occurs when a woman’s ovaries stop producing eggs. It usually happens after she has gone through her childbearing years. Some midlife women go through menopause naturally without having any symptoms. Others experience menopause because of medical conditions like cancer or thyroid disease.
Common signs of menopause include:
- Changes in menstrual periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Mood swings
- Weight gain
- Decreased sex drive
If you notice any of these changes, talk to your doctor. He or she will be able to determine whether you need to see a specialist for a sleep study.
Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea Serious for Women?
Yes, obstructive sleep apnea is serious for anyone. If you don’t treat it, it can lead to other health problems such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, depression, anxiety, irritability, memory loss, headaches and even infertility.
The good news is that there are treatments available that can improve your quality of life. And, fortunately, there are no side effects associated with these treatments. So, if you suspect you might have sleep-disordered breathing, talk to your doctor today. He or she will perform an evaluation and determine whether treatment is right for you.