Sleep Related Breathing Disorders

What are sleep related breathing disorders?

Sleep related breathing disorders are a group of disorders that affect our breathing while we are asleep, and are characterized by disruptions of normal breathing patterns that only occur during sleep. Therefore, the person with the disorder may be the last to know he or she has a problem. Sleep related breathing disorders constitute a subset of the broad group of sleep disorders that include many other disorders such as insomnia (difficulty sleeping), hypersomnias (inappropriately falling asleep, for example, narcolepsy), parasomnias (activities during sleep, for example, sleepwalking and sleep terrors), and sleep related movement disorders (for example, restless leg syndrome). The most common sleep related breathing disorders are snoring and sleep apnea.

Why do we sleep?

This is a complex topic that we only partially understand. Mammals, reptiles, birds, and even fruit flies have been observed sleeping. A manatee can sleep with one side of its brain while the other side is awake and alert. Sleeping in this way avoids a long period of unconsciousness, during which it would be very vulnerable. Humans typically need 7-8 hours of sleep every night, but individuals vary in their need for sleep. Sleep should be restorative and is necessary to maintain health. During sleep, we rest and repair our muscles and organize our thoughts and memories. Therefore, if we become sleep deprived, we feel both physically fatigued and mentally exhausted. Many studies show that sleep deprivation causes a decrease in problem solving ability, attention, and manual reflex times.

What are the stages of sleep?

Sleep stages can be measured by monitoring the electrical impulses within the brain, often termed brain waves. These electrical impulses, or brain waves can be monitored with an electroencephalogram (EEG). Sleep can be broken up into three stages and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Stage 1 sleep is the most superficial and stage 4 is the deepest. Stage 1 and 2 sleep are both considered to be light sleep, while stage 3 sleep is deeper, more restorative sleep. This stage is important for the body to feel well. REM sleep is the sleep stage in which we typically dream. During REM, the brain sends signals to the muscles to relax, so we do not "act out" our dreams. The relaxation of muscles in REM sleep can sometimes worsen sleep related breathing disorders like snoring and sleep apnea. We typically spend about 50% of our sleep in stages 1 and 2, 25% in stages 3, and 25% in REM sleep.

For additional information please visit the Sleep Center.

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Medically reviewed by Peter O’Connor, MD; American Board of Otolaryngology with subspecialty in Sleep Medicine


"Sleep related breathing disorders in adults: Definitions"

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