Diagnosing & Treating Sleep Disorders: Pregnancy and Sleep Apnea

Kathleen Gallagher
Kathleen Gallagher, Manager of the Riverside Sleep Disorder Institute, discusses sleep apnea during pregnancy.

Much like eating, drinking, and breathing, sleep is a necessary function of the human body. Despite its importance, many adults don’t get enough sleep and ignore the signs of fatigue, assuming a better night’s sleep isn’t possible. However, a sleep study often identifies issues and offers solutions in a single night.


The Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

A good night’s sleep allows your body to accomplish a lot. Kathleen Gallagher, Manager of the Riverside Sleep Disorder Institute, shares insights as to what happens when your head hits the pillow.

“Some studies show our body rebuilds when we sleep,” explains Gallagher. “Tissue regeneration occurs, cells regrow, and human growth hormones are produced, especially in young people. Other studies show we retain things taught during certain stages of sleep.”

Gallagher also mentions that a lack of sleep contributes to weight gain, which in turn contributes to disruptive sleep patterns—creating an unhealthy cycle.


Sleep Apnea & Hypopnea

One of the most recognized sleep disorders is sleep apnea, the repeated closing of the upper airway during sleep. Apnea generally occurs when a person sleeps on his back and the tongue falls back and blocks the airflow. Gallagher recommends sleeping on your side or stomach to avoid any issues.

Over time, apnea causes your heart to work faster because there is a decrease in oxygenation throughout your blood. This puts patients at risk for heart disease or failure.

Snoring is also an indicator of hypopnea, the narrowing of your airway to the point of decreased breathing. Unlike apnea, which occurs when a person stops breathing, hypopnea is simply “under-breathing.”

In either case, the lack of oxygen awakens your brain, which causes a sleep disruption. The result is a poor night’s rest, and feeling fatigued throughout the day.


Pregnancy, Menopause & Shut-Eye

Women who are pregnant or going through menopause are at a higher risk for sleep disorders. The blood volume increases in a pregnant woman’s body, which causes swelling, edema, and resistance in the upper airway, leading to sleep apnea or hypopnea. The excess weight a woman carries when pregnant also causes pressure on the airway, making it more difficult for her to breathe when sleeping.

“If left untreated, sleep apnea or hypopnea in pregnant women can cause gestational hypertension, diabetes, low birth weight, or the need for a C-section,” remarks Gallagher. “If treated, these issues are averted.”

Men tend to get sleep apnea earlier in life. Women’s estrogen and progesterone hormones tone the muscles in the upper airway, but men don’t have that luxury. Once a woman enters menopause, hormone levels drop, and women begin experiencing more sleep issues.


Putting Bad Habits to Bed

If you’re experiencing sleep issues, Gallagher recommends seeing your physician to determine if you need the help of a specialist. Sometimes minor tweaks to your habits are all that’s needed.

As mentioned before, some issues are corrected with a new sleep position or using a sleep positional device. Cutting back on electronics is also a change Gallagher suggests, in addition to creating a healthy sleep environment.

“No television in the bedroom. That’s a good starting point,” advises Gallagher. “I also recommend sleeping in a cool, dark room. Any daylight might prohibit a restorative sleep.”


Studying the Snore

If a sleep study is required, the diagnosis is typically determined in one night. Some patients need to have tonsils or adenoids removed, while others are given a CPAP machine. The machine works like a fan, using pressure to pull air in as you inhale and distend the airway. The pressure adjusts throughout the night to eliminate apneas from occurring.

“Though CPAPs were once cumbersome, loud machines, they’ve come a long way,” says Gallagher. “They’re now quiet, little machines with a variety of masks so you can choose an option that’s comfortable.”

If you or your partner experiences disruptive sleep, extreme fatigue or loud snoring, talk to the experts at Riverside Sleep Disorder Institute to find a fix for a better slumber.


To listen to an in-depth conversation on this topic with Kathleen Gallagher, Manager of the Riverside Sleep Disorder Institute, visit: Pregnancy and Sleep Apnea podcast