Breathe Well for Better Health
by Ingo Mahn
A deep, life-giving breath. We rarely think about it, yet every night millions of Americans literally struggle to get their next breath. Unfortunately, this problem is far more widespread than we realized and the health consequences are far more serious. The inability to properly breathe at night results in disturbances in sleep, which not only lead to increased daytime fatigue but are now being linked to medical conditions, both physical (fibromyalgia/rheumatoid arthritis) and mental (anxiety/depression) in nature.
Snoring is one of the more apparent symptoms of this problem. This makes matters worse because the sleeping partner of the snorer, unless they have already moved to the spare bedroom, is also affected.
It is important to note that “normal” nightly sleep patterns, as depicted in Image 1, follow a somewhat predictable pattern.
During the first part of the night, we fall into a deeper state of sleep. During this quieter period, our body temperature drops, heart rate and breathing slow, and our muscles relax. This critical process allows for physical regeneration of our body. Failure to reach this level of sleep results in increased inflammation and reduced immune function. The result? A myriad of physical ailments. In fact, recent studies have linked breathing-induced sleep disturbances to fibromyalgia and even cancer!
The second part of the night is a lighter level of sleep known as REM (rapid eye movement). Restorative sleep during this time of night (when we dream) has been shown to facilitate learning, improve memory and enhance emotional health. Neurotransmitters and stress hormones are also balanced during this time, and failure to sleep during this part of the night may lead to increased anxiety, phobias and depression.
Once you discover all of the other potential conditions associated with a poor night’s sleep, all of a sudden that afternoon drowsiness after a restless night takes on a whole new significance.
Common factors leading to poor sleep, such as a bad sleep environment, stress, alcohol and stimulants, are usually easily identified and addressed. Despite being one of the leading causes, sleep disturbed by the inability to properly breathe, is usually not considered.
When you realize that snoring is an indicator of nighttime breathing problems and that more than half of men over the age of 50 snore, you begin to see just how extensive the problem is. Women are not immune to this problem, and in many cases, can be even more difficult to diagnose. Rather than the more drastic sleep apnea seen in men, where breathing can stop for long periods of time (sometimes as often as 20 to 30 times an hour), women tend to have a milder version. Still, every time one of these events occurs, there is a decrease in oxygen levels, followed by a release of adrenaline as the body gasps for air—not an environment that allows the body to regenerate and heal!
Fortunately, modern imaging technology has made it easier to screen for these conditions. Software analyzing these images allows the dentist and patient to easily visualize the airway in 3D (image 2).
Another diagnostics tool is data obtained from sleep study. In the past, it was a challenge for doctors to convince patients to spend two or three nights in a sleep center hooked up to an array of wires and sensors. Again, modern technology comes to the rescue: A sleep study can now be done from the comfort of your own home.
The good news is, once a diagnosis of disturbed sleep due to breathing is made, effective treatment options are available. Currently, the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is considered the “gold standard” but presents a multitude of problems (bulky, noisy and hard to keep clean), which make compliance low. Fortunately, other therapies and oral appliances are available for those patients unable to tolerate the CPAP device. For example, simple oral appliances that reposition the jaw and even minor surgical procedures are proving to be highly effective in dealing with this problem.
Oxygen is our most important nutrient. Getting enough, especially at night, may be the key to achieving optimal health.
Dr. Ingo Mahn is a 1985 graduate of Marquette University School of Dentistry. He is an accredited member of the IAOMT (International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology) and earned a doctorate in integrative medicine from Capital University, in Georgetown. He is the founder of Natural Dental Partners (602-775-5120), a high-tech, health-centered practice in North Phoenix using 3D imaging technology. For more information and a listing of upcoming events, visit MyNaturalDentist.com.