The mood changes that can indicate you have sleep apnoea – what to look for

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Sleep apnoea is when your breathing stops and starts while you sleep. The most common type is called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). “This type of apnea occurs when your throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway during sleep,” explains Mayo Clinic.

Many symptoms of OSA show up during sleep itself but they can extend to when you are awake.

According to Mayo Clinic, experiencing mood changes, such as depression or irritability, can signal OSA.

While the link to mood changes is not fully understood, research published in the Journal of Sleep Research has drawn a link to certain chemicals in the brain.

“In previous studies, we’ve seen structural changes in the brain due to sleep apnea, but in this study we actually found substantial differences in … two chemicals that influence how the brain is working,” said lead researcher Paul Macey.

For the study, the researchers examined levels of two brain chemicals: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA.

These chemicals are found in a part of the brain called the insula. This part of the brain helps to govern signals from other brain regions to help regulate emotions, thinking, and certain physical functions such as blood pressure and perspiration, the researchers said.

People with sleep apnea have lower levels of GABA and abnormally high levels of glutamate, said the researchers.

While GABA acts as a mood inhibitor – slowing things down and keeping people calm – glutamate has the opposite effect.

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When glutamate levels are high, the brain is stressed and doesn’t work as well, explained the researchers.

Other symptoms associated with OSA include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Loud snoring
  • Observed episodes of stopped breathing during sleep
  • Abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking
  • Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Morning headache
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day
  • High blood pressure
  • Nighttime sweating
  • Decreased libido.

According to the NHS, you should see a GP if you have any of the main symptoms associated with OSA.

These are:

  • Your breathing stops and starts while you sleep
  • You make gasping, snorting or choking noises while you sleep
  • You always feel very tired during the day.

“If someone else has seen you have the symptoms, it can help to bring them with you,” says the NHS.

It adds: “Sleep apnoea can be serious if it’s not diagnosed and treated.”

How to treat it

OSA is a long-term condition and you may need lifelong treatment to control the symptoms.

There are a number of effective treatments and changes you can make to improve your wellbeing.

You can help to manage the symptoms of OSA yourself by overhauling unhealthy aspects of your lifestyle.

According to the British Lung Foundation (OSA), reducing the amount of alcohol you drink, maintaining a healthy weight and having good bedtime habits can make a big difference.

Losing weight is particularly important because being overweight can affect your breathing, warns the BLF.

“As your body weight increases, so do the number of breathing pauses when you’re asleep,” it warns.

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