Ever feel so distracted at work it’s hard to focus on an email let alone an assignment? Do you find yourself getting off track during conversations with friends or feel like you can never finish a project? These may feel like symptoms of an attention disorder like ADHD (and you may have even received this diagnosis from a physician), but it’s possible another condition is to blame.
If your lack of focus and inability to concentrate are coupled with symptoms such as a sore throat in the morning or waking up multiple times throughout the night, you may be suffering from sleep apnea. Read on to learn more.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is when normal breathing is interrupted as you sleep, resulting in pauses or shallow breaths throughout the night. Pauses can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and cause the sleeper to be roused from deep sleep, resulting in sleep loss.
There are two types of sleep apnea. The first type, called obstructive sleep apnea, occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses onto the airway. The second and less-common variety is central sleep apnea, which is when the brain fails to signal to the body that it’s time to breathe.
- Loud, disruptive snoring. As the airway gets blocked, air must forcibly pass through the blockage, resulting in loud vibrations or snoring.
- Daytime fatigue and drowsiness. Sleep apnea causes multiple wakes throughout the night, robbing you of vital shut-eye.
- A dry mouth and sore throat. Severe snoring and an open mouth during sleep open can dry out the mouth and cause irritation.
- Night sweats. With sleep apnea, the body must work hard to get sufficient breaths, resulting in overexertion and sweating throughout the night.
- Pauses in breathing. You’ll need a sleep partner to help you identify this symptom, as the sleeper often has no recollection of it happening.
Research suggests a strong connection between obstructive sleep apnea and attention struggles. In fact, up to 95% of documented obstructive sleep apnea patients experience ADHD-like symptoms. Since the effects of sleep loss and symptoms of ADHD can be indistinguishable, both resulting in impulsivity, restlessness, lack of focus and forgetfulness, it’s possible for an ADHD diagnosis to be given incorrectly. Adding to the confusion is the fact that sleep apnea is hard to diagnose and sleepers are often unaware they suffer from it.
What can be done
If you suspect sleep apnea may be the cause for your lack of focus and daytime sleepiness, you’ll first want to confirm the diagnosis. Sleep apnea is diagnosed through a sleep study called polysomnography, which records all your biological functions as you sleep. The study monitors heart rate, eye movement, brain activity, muscle movement and the amount of oxygen in your blood.
Before you see a sleep specialist, start keeping a sleep diary where you record details of your sleep habits, like how many hours you got and how you felt throughout the day. Share this with your doctor to help her determine if a sleep study would be a good option for you. A physical exam will also be performed to check your nose, mouth and throat for signs of larger-than-normal tissue that may be blocking your airway.
If a sleep apnea diagnosis is confirmed, there are things you can do to help. Sleep apnea suffers who are overweight are recommended to try diet and exercise, as weight loss can help the symptoms. Smokers are encouraged to quit, and all sleep apnea sufferers are encouraged to avoid alcohol, sedatives and large meals too close to bedtime. Something called a positive pressure airway machine may help obstructive sleep apnea—it’s designed to keep the throat open by blowing a steady stream of air into the airway.
Even if it turns out sleep apnea isn’t to blame, proper sleep has been shown to help with attention-related issues in children and adults. To put your best foot forward, or help you child do the same, make sure you’re set up with a proper sleep routine that includes a reasonable bed time (aim for 10 PM or earlier), standard wake-time and a healthy sleep environment (dark, cool, comfortable).