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Beyond the Snore: Sleep Apnea and Its Major Impact on Overall Health through Functional Medicine

As holistic nurses and nurse practitioners, we often encounter patients whose chronic health issues seem resistant to conventional treatments. A frequently overlooked but significant factor in these cases is sleep apnea, a condition that affects not just sleep quality but overall health. In this blog, we'll explore the extensive impact of identifying and treating sleep apnea and how a functional medicine approach can be a game-changer for our patients.

My passion for identifying and treating sleep apnea began when I was still working in the hospital. I was working on a step-down unit, and we had to do a sleep apnea screening (STOP-BANG) on all patients before they went for a procedure. Over time, I noticed that a disproportionately large number of my patients admitted on night shift with a myocardial infarction (heart attack) were screening positive for undiagnosed sleep apnea. I started comparing this to the screening done for patients admitted on day shift with the same diagnosis, and realized there was a significant difference! Through further research, I found that sleep apnea can be a major contributor to risk for myocardial infarction and that for these undiagnosed patients, they are experiencing their most strenuous cardiovascular activity in their sleep! Their hearts are working four to seven times harder in their sleep than when they are awake and active during the day! No wonder people experiencing sleep apnea are often tired all of the time AND no wonder they are having their cardiovascular events in the middle of the night!

The Underlying Effects of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea, and in particular obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), is a condition that extends well beyond simple snoring. Characterized by repeated interruptions in breathing during sleep, this disorder can significantly impact overall health. These breathing disruptions can reduce the oxygen levels in the blood, leading to a range of systemic health issues. Hypertension is a common consequence, as the body struggles to oxygenate efficiently. Heart disease, including risks of heart attacks and heart failure, can escalate due to the increased strain on the cardiovascular system. Type 2 diabetes risk is heightened as well due to the impact of sleep disruption on insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism.

Furthermore, the effects of sleep apnea are not limited to physical health. Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can be exacerbated by the chronic fatigue and stress associated with poor sleep quality. Cognitive functions like memory, attention, and decision-making can also be impaired, affecting daily life and productivity. As functional medicine practitioners, we recognize these interconnected aspects of health. Our approach, which focuses on the whole person, enables us to identify these diverse impacts of sleep apnea and create a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses both the symptoms and their underlying causes.

Functional Medicine Approach to Sleep Apnea

In functional medicine, our philosophy is to treat the individual, not just the symptoms of a disease. With sleep apnea, this involves a comprehensive evaluation of the patient's lifestyle, environment, and biological factors. That is why I include a screening for sleep apnea in every patient intake. Furthermore, lifestyle modifications play a crucial role in managing sleep apnea. Obesity, for instance, is a significant risk factor due to excess tissue around the neck area, which can obstruct the airway. Encouraging weight loss through dietary changes and increased physical activity can therefore be a key component of treatment. Similarly, habits like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can exacerbate sleep apnea symptoms. Smoking contributes to inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway, while alcohol relaxes the throat muscles, increasing the likelihood of airway obstruction.

Beyond these lifestyle factors, we delve into other potential contributors that are frequently overlooked in conventional medical approaches. Hormonal imbalances, for example, can play a role in the development and severity of sleep apnea. Conditions like hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can exacerbate or mimic some sleep apnea symptoms. Chronic inflammation, whether due to autoimmune conditions, environmental allergens, or dietary irritants, can also contribute to airway issues. Believe it or not, I have seen many patients improve or reverse their sleep apnea by removing inflammatory foods from their diet! Stress, both physical and psychological, is another critical factor. Chronic stress can disrupt sleep patterns and exacerbate breathing problems during sleep. In our functional medicine practice, we address these multifaceted aspects through a personalized, patient-centered approach, ensuring that our treatment plans are as unique as the individuals we care for.

For good reason, one part of my conversations around sleep apnea treatment always includes what to look for as treatment begins. Patients often improve rapidly, and may need to be monitored closely for reducing medications such as anti-hypertensive and anti-depressants. They should be educated on what to watch for at home such as signs and symptoms of low blood pressure. It is exciting to help them wean off of medications and witness their health transformation when sleep apnea is addressed holistically.

Referring Patients to Specialists

While we can manage many aspects of care within our functional medicine framework, sleep apnea often requires collaboration with specialists. Referring patients to a sleep specialist for a comprehensive sleep study is crucial. This study can confirm the diagnosis and severity of sleep apnea. Additionally, collaborating with ENT specialists can help address anatomical issues, while working with dietitians can assist in lifestyle modification for weight management. This multidisciplinary approach ensures our patients receive comprehensive care tailored to their needs.

Embracing a Comprehensive Approach: The Transformative Power of Treating Sleep Apnea in Functional Medicine

Recognizing and treating sleep apnea can profoundly affect our patients' overall health and quality of life. As nurse practitioners and nurses practicing functional medicine, we play a pivotal role in this process. By taking a holistic approach and collaborating with specialists, we can help our patients achieve optimal health outcomes. Let us continue to broaden our understanding and approach to conditions like sleep apnea, reinforcing our commitment to treating the whole person, not just the symptoms.

For RNs and NPs eager to deepen their understanding of these types of intricate health connections that can enhance their clinical practice, I teach the Functional Medicine for Nurses™ course through the Integrative Nurse Coach Academy in partnership with the Institute for Functional Medicine. This course is designed to blend the functional medicine approach with the nursing perspective. By enrolling, you'll gain comprehensive insights into functional medicine principles, including in-depth explorations of topics like the gut-brain axis, and how to apply this knowledge in nursing practice. This training is not just about acquiring information; it's about empowering you to transform patient care and become a leader in the field of holistic nursing and functional medicine. If you're passionate about advancing your career and enhancing your ability to heal, I invite you to join us and take the next step in your professional journey. Learn more here.


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