Why my brain was waking me up 38 times an hour every night

Alex Anastassiou
·Social Media Editor
·4-min read

Being diagnosed with sleep apnea wasn't something I ever expected in my mid-20s, but I do consider it one of the best things that ever happened to me.

See, I’ve spent most of my life tired. I know many people have, but I don’t mean “man, I’m ready for my morning coffee" tired, I mean “my eyes glaze over at 10 o’clock each morning because my brain feels like it’s been dipped in syrup and I need a nap ASAP". That kind of tired!

For years before that, I’d experienced many of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea – most notably, snoring – and some weekends, I couldn’t bring myself to leave bed I was so exhausted; not something I thought was typical of an otherwise healthy woman in her early-20s.

Snoring runs in my family. My grandparents both snored, my mum snores (sorry Ma, but you do), and just for good measure, so does our dog, so it was unsurprising to me that I did too. What I wasn’t prepared to find out, was just how badly my snoring was affecting my body and my brain.

Alex Anastassiou fitted with wires and electrodes which helped determine her sleep apnea diagnosis.
You can imagine I had a very comfortable night's sleep wearing enough tech to get my own satellite signal. Image: Supplied

I was referred to a sleep clinic by my GP, and on the afternoon of my test I fronted up to a medical centre wearing my pyjamas with no idea what to expect.

I spent roughly an hour being fitted with wires and had electrodes attached to my scalp with putty that took ages to get out of my hair afterwards. I wore a pack on my chest that collected the data and had a strap tied around my ankle to measure how much my leg moved in my sleep.

I looked like the '70s B-grade movie version of The Terminator and got plenty of very strange looks from other drivers as I drove home.

Diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea

A few weeks later I received my official diagnosis of severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). For anyone not aware of what that means, here is the very basic non-medical breakdown as explained to me by my sleep doctor:

It’s the complete blockage of your upper airway when you sleep.

We can all agree that breathing is pretty important, yes? Well, with OSA, your body goes through periods where your airway is obstructed, stopping the flow of oxygen causing you to stop breathing.

After a few seconds, (or up to a minute later) your brain kicks in, freaks out, and reflexively wakes you up so you don’t suffocate. Sounds fun, right?

What my sleep study found was that roughly 38 times an hour, my brain would wake me up so that I could start breathing again.

I don’t remember these wake-ups, but they were enough that my brain wouldn’t ever fully be at rest, resulting in a number of symptoms that drastically affected my day-to-day life.

The first time it was suggested to me that I might have sleep apnea, I cried in the middle of a pub. The shame I felt about my snoring, and potentially having a sleep disorder that would require something like a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine to treat, was terrifying to me and it didn’t have to be, because there is absolutely no shame in it.

Over 80 per cent of people with OSA undiagnosed

According to a 2016 survey by the Sleep Health Foundation it’s estimated that 8.3 per cent of the Australian adult population has been diagnosed with moderate-to-severe OSA, however, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians ‘also noted a large group of participants with likely undiagnosed, symptomatic OSA’.

One of Australia’s leading neuroscience research institutes (NeuRa) similarly stated more than 80 per cent of people with OSA remain undiagnosed.

I started sleeping with my CPAP machine about 12 months ago. It’s not the most attractive sleep accessory in the world – in fact, I believe the most accurate descriptor is that I look like the love child of Bane (The Dark Knight Rises) and the Immortan Joe (Mad Max: Fury Road) – but it means I sleep well every single night, it means that I don’t need a two-hour nap every afternoon, and it means that I’m functioning far better than I was 18 months ago.

Friday, March 19 was World Sleep Day. Check out the event's website to find out more.

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