Sleepless in Winnipeg: How looking into the cause of snoring can improve your life

Snoring isn't just annoying. It can also be a sign of sleep apnea, which can cause a variety of health issues. Jo Davies hopes the results of her test for sleep apnea will help her get more shut-eye.

Jo Davies found sleep apnea was causing her sleepless nights after overnight study

Snoring isn't just annoying. It can also be a sign of sleep apnea, which can cause a variety of health issues. Jo Davies hopes the results of her test for sleep apnea will help her get more shut-eye. (Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

Of all the things I thought would be tough about getting older, sleeping wasn't one of them. I pictured myself taking long naps on the couch. Nodding off during conversations with my grandkids. Snoring my way through the last half of Masterpiece Theatre on the regular. Boy, was I wrong.

I find myself, at the tender age of 48, incapable of sleeping. It's not my kids keeping me awake nowadays. No, my three sons are teenagers now. They sleep like they're just this side of a coma. Nothing short of a whiff of homemade waffles or a new video game will wake them.

On the other hand, I'm beginning to dread bedtime more than Sean Spicer dreads press conferences. I haven't slept through the night for years. I'm absolutely exhausted whether I sleep or not.

My blood pressure is high, I nod off at my desk at work, and the dark circles under my eyes make me look like Bela Lugosi on a bender. No matter how early I go to bed or how many naps I take, I'm tired. The only thing I want (apart from a date with Idris Elba … ahem) is a good sleep, and I can't get one.

Snoring no laughing matter

My sons have told me for years that I snore. Loudly. More recently, they've heard me gasping and choking at night, doubtless a horrendous thing to hear from someone you're NOT trying to strangle. This isn't Game of Thrones, after all.

I checked with my doctor, who suggested I undergo a sleep study to see if I have sleep apnea. If you haven't heard, sleep apnea is a condition in which the soft tissues of the throat relax so that your tongue falls toward the back of your airway, narrowing or even blocking it altogether while you sleep.

Breathing can stop from 10 to 30 seconds or even longer, 30 times or more per hour. Your blood oxygen dips and your brain rouses just enough to urge you to start breathing again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound. This is, as my best friend Jenn would say, "dead sexy."

Sounds horrendous, doesn't it? All of these breathing stoppages cause your brain to be always on the verge of wakefulness. You never experience the deep, restful rapid eye movement sleep that your body needs on a regular basis. As a result, you are always bone tired.

There are a wide range of risk factors for sleep apnea, which can affect sufferers with symptoms ranging from high blood pressure to premature death in some cases. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Sleep apnea can affect sufferers with a variety of awful symptoms:  Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, impaired cognitive function, depression and severe headaches, even premature death in some cases. And I don't mean by your sleep partner, when they finally get sick of putting up with your noisy nighttime behavior and smother you with their pillow.

I used to think if I did have apnea, it was due solely to being overweight. In my mind, only heavy people suffered from it. The truth of the matter is that thin people can have sleep apnea, too.

Other risk factors include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, anatomy (narrow airway, large tongue, deviated septum), allergies and/or use of sedatives. Aging can also play a role, as it affects the ability of the brain to keep upper airway muscles stiff during sleep.

Overnight study nothing to lose sleep over

I confess I was more than a little apprehensive about doing the actual sleep study, which I administered to myself at home. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The equipment was minimal, and there was plenty of instruction on how to keep it from coming off during the night. The fact that I looked like an extra on Grey's Anatomy was just a bonus.

Monitors kept track of my breathing, my heartbeat, my blood oxygen level and blood pressure. They even recorded whether I was lying on my back, my side or hanging upside down like a vampire bat. (OK, I made that last one up.)

After reviewing my data, I was told I suffer from moderate to severe sleep apnea. The record of my stopped or shallow breathing left me wondering how I was still functioning at all, given how little actual sleep I seemed to be getting.

The next step in this process usually involves using what's called a CPAP machine, which pumps air through a hose and into a mask at sufficient pressure to keep your airway open while you sleep.

I'm told by close friends and family who use CPAP machines that it has made a huge difference in their quality of life. They no longer drift off during meetings or while watching TV, nor live in fear of being banished to (try to) sleep on the couch.

What I look forward to is having more energy so that I can exercise more and lose weight, which will hopefully reduce my apneas.

Sounds like a life I could get used to, I think.

Just call me Rip Van Winkle.

For more information on sleep apnea, head here.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Jo Davies is a freelance writer and office assistant who is never at a loss for an opinion. She is currently writing her first novel, set in Jamaica.