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Signs Of A Sleep Disorder

Mar/03/2024 / by Brian Sodoma

Plus how you can improve your nightly slumber

Woman in bed switching off alarm clock
Photo via Shutterstock

Sleep science has come into the mainstream, as research now clearly points to a direct link between optimal health and a good night’s rest. Some of us brush off long periods of poor sleep, but we may not realize it’s contributing to comorbidities and mental health issues, explains Dr. Jerry Hu, DDS. Dr. Hu is a triple board-certified sleep medicine dentist and founder of Nevada Dental Sleep in Southern Nevada.

About 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep disorders and one in three adults do not regularly get the recommended amount of sleep needed, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In this article, Dr. Hu shares some of his “red flags for airway breathing issues,” which may signal you have sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, along with some important sleep hygiene tips.

Role of Lifestyle and Medical History

Sleep apnea occurs when a person periodically stops breathing during sleep. This may cause them to stir or wake up and not feel rested and rejuvenated when they rise. Dr. Hu says some early warning signs may be found in lifestyle choices and medical history. Things to watch out for include:

Being overweight and having a high BMI

Smoking and alcohol use

Prior lung issues like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

While previous health issues are not something you can entirely control, maintaining your weight and avoiding tobacco or alcohol are lifestyle decisions that can improve sleep.

Signs of Sleep Disorders

Waking Up At Night, Acid Reflux, Snoring

Frequently waking up through the night and having acid reflux are major red flags, Hu notes. When an airway closes you may have a hypopnea, which is slow, shallow or restricted breathing for 10 seconds or more. If you have acid reflux, the stomach will try to stimulate breathing when an airway closes. This may cause you to wake up gasping. This experience is a warning sign, but it is also possible to wake up gasping without having acid reflux, too, the expert clarifies.

Snoring is another precursor to sleep apnea, but there is a small population of people who snore and do not have it. It helps to have a sleep partner to witness these events, Dr. Hu adds. But if you don’t have one, then you’ll need to pay attention to how much you’re waking up and if you’re not feeling rested after sleep.


During a sleep test, the Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI) measures the number of sleep arousals, or hypopneas, you have in a night. However, some patients have “micro-arousals,” or those that last less than 10 seconds.

Some people with micro-arousals have Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome (UARS). The condition can be hard to diagnose, especially if a sleep specialist does not consider micro-arousals in their evaluation.

“You may have 200 micro-arousals that are not counted as full-blown hypopneas. But that’s still like me choking your neck 200 times throughout the night. You’re not going to wake up refreshed,” Hu says. “The tendency is for more fit women in their 20s and premenopausal women to have it. Some are star athletes or marathon runners and otherwise healthy, but they’re being told they don’t have sleep apnea, yet they always feel tired, anxious or depressed.”

Facial Features

The position of your jaw may also factor into airway disruption. Some people who have a small retruded jaw that naturally sits back closer to the neck may have airway problems as well. Adenoid facies is another concern. It’s when a person has an open-mouth appearance due to enlarged adenoids. Adenoids are tissues that sit in the back of the nasal passage and trap bacteria and viruses. In his practice, Dr. Hu uses noninvasive oral instruments to alter the jaw over time gradually.

If you have any of the previously mentioned symptoms or these facial features and are constantly feeling tired, you may consider consulting a sleep expert, Dr. Hu says.

“Like I said, these are red flags. You may be in good shape, energetic but occasionally snore and you’re fine. But if you’re tired and have at least one of these symptoms, you should consider a sleep test,” he adds.

Treatment of Sleep Apnea

If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, in addition to treatment, Hu says it’s important for a patient to exercise, eat well, and address any mental health concerns like anxiety or depression. A professional may correct the airway problem, but poor lifestyle decisions could cause sleep apnea to reoccur.

“Those are the four pillars, the four legs that hold the table up, so to speak,” he emphasizes, “your treatment, exercise, nutrition and mental health, it’s all connected.”

Sleep Hygiene Tips

Dr. Hu offers the following tips for better sleep:

Try to always go to bed at the same time to maintain your circadian rhythm.

Sleep in a cool environment; 67 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

You don’t want to feel hot, so sleep as close to nude as possible and cover yourself with a blanket.

Make sure the room is pitch-black with no cell phones or wifi nearby

Sleep at a three-degree inclination, if possible. If you don’t have a Sleep Number bed you can prop your head up with pillows.

Sleep on your side.


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