FOR many of us Mondays feel like a sleep-deprived haze. A third of us admit to feeling ‘unusually tired’ at any given time; which is hardly surprising given that a third of Brits get less than six hours sleep a night, which is far less than the recommended eight hours needed to properly rejuvenate body and mind. But for some people, even a good night’s sleep doesn’t refresh them. 
At least 1.5 million Britons are living in perpetual tiredness due to a sleeping disorder that puts their lives at risk – and the lives of others around them. Called obstructive sleep apnoea (or OSA) this condition causes morning headaches, poor concentration and memory; moodiness, low sex drive, anxiety and depression. People with OSA are forever exhausted and can nod off at the drop of a hat. And although this might be great if having to sit through a boring movie, it causes frequent lapses of concentration throughout the day. OSA means you will easily doze off behind the wheel and every year about 40,000 road traffic accidents are caused by OSA. Worryingly, Most people don’t know when they have it.
OSA is caused by floppy muscles in the neck. It tends to affect people who snore at night, are overweight, and/or have a large neck. When we fall asleep at night, all our muscles naturally relax, including those around our windpipe. If you have OSA then the throat muscles simply aren’t strong enough keep the windpipe open and so the weight of the neck squashes the airway. People with OSA will usually snore loudly before momentarily choking. They wake up with a splutter and then drift off again. It can happen dozens of times a night, but the episodes are so brief that most people with OSA don’t remember them happening.
Not only do people with OSA wake up feeling unrefreshed, but their fragmented sleep takes a toll on their inner workings. Hormone levels are knocked off kilter and the chances of diabetes, heart attack and stroke are increased markedly. In fact, if you have type 2 diabetes then chances are that you already have OSA – more than 80 per cent of people with diabetes do.
Perhaps most troubling is what happens to the mind. Starved of a good night’s sleep, people with OSA dip into moments of ‘microsleep’ in the day. Microsleep can last less than a second and it is so short the brain doesn’t register it, meaning you are utterly oblivious to having dozed off. In fact, if you tell someone after they have just had a microsleep then they simply won’t believe you. OSA sufferers have bouts of microsleep when sat waiting in stationary traffic, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out what might happen if they go into microsleep when operating heavy machinery or driving a lorry.
If you snore at night, continuously feel sleep-deprived, or find yourself waking up with a start by cars hooting at you when the lights turn green then consider summoning the energy to visit your doctor. Panic not though: modern medicine means that OSA needn’t be a nightmare. Lifestyle changes, mouth guards (called mandibular advancement devices) and specialised ‘CPAP’ sleeping masks can often completely cure the problem. Getting it treated will improve your overall health and – who knows? – maybe a good night’s kip will make life seem a whole lot better.

Dr Stu