Over the past year, ever since the birth of our third son, Brennan, I've been more tired than usual. Not too unexpected when you have a newborn, right? Add to this having to help my wife tend to the needs of our two older boys, who are 7 and 10. But even now when Brennan is sleeping well through the night, and I'm sleeping about 7 hours every night, I'm still more tired than I used to be, despite running 3 times per week, and being as fit as ever. Could I be going through male menopause?
The Facts of Male Menopause
I wrote last month about how mothers can suffer from poor sleep due to the effects of menopause on sleep quality, but what about fathers? You may have heard about male menopause, or more precisely, andropause. It's not that well known, and even if it happens, it's so slow and insidious that most men don't realize it's happening.
Well, it turns out that men go through a similar transition during the mid-life years. Not only does testosterone slowly drop, but thyroid levels as well. Our traditional medical culture and even holistic and alternative doctors sometimes argue that aging is a deficiency of certain hormones, vitamins or minerals, and that replacement using synthetic or natural supplements is the answer. But is that the only answer?
Most people think that this is a natural part of aging, along with the typical memory loss, balding, wrinkles and lowered energy and stamina. But what if I told you that I routinely see even young to middle aged men who complain about hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, insomnia and irritability—or all the prevailing symptoms of menopause?
Aging As A Consequence of Poor Sleep
In my book, Sleep, Interrupted, I describe a sleep-breathing paradigm where all modern humans are on a continuum, where we're all susceptible to sleep-breathing problems to various degrees.
As you age, it's expected that overall, you'll keep moving up this continuum to the point where sleep breathing problems become much more serious as in obstructive sleep apnea. Not only do we sag and bulge on the outside as we get older, it also happens on the inside, including your upper airway. And as your airway becomes narrower, the more trouble you'll have breathing while sleeping, and this in turn will make you wake up more and obstruct more.
Women experience more dramatic changes in hormone levels (particularly progesterone) that affect upper airway patency, but levels of testosterone and even small amounts of progesterone can also influence upper airway muscle tone in men as well; Not to mention the typical weight gain that occurs in the middle years, leading to even more narrowing of the upper airway. Adding any degree of inflammation to the upper airway (such as from a cold, allergies, or reflux) can cause more frequent obstructions and arousals. Poor sleep efficiency leads to weight gain, and weight gain narrows the throat.
Sleep Apnea And Aging
It's a given that as you age, your upper airway begins to narrow gradually, aggravated intermittently with additional narrowing from inflammation. This is also why men begin to develop cardiovascular disease as they get older. Women are somewhat protected before menopause, but afterwards, they begin to catch up when it comes to rates of heart disease. As you slowly move up the sleep-breathing continuum, your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea increases, and once it begins, a vicious cycle begins, where poor sleep aggravates weight gain, and weight gain aggravates poor sleep.
Poor sleep (by causing a physiologic form of stress) also causes major hormonal changes by lowering your thyroid levels, as well as your reproductive hormones. So naturally, if you test for thyroid or testosterone levels, it may come back on the low side. Not too unexpectedly, supplementing with replacement hormones helps in some cases, but not all the time.
We know that untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can aggravate or cause routine medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression/anxiety, heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Your risk of car accidents also increases anywhere from 3 to 10 times normal if you have OSA. Add to this all the other common expected conditions that you may experience as you get older: frequent bathroom trips, balding, erectile dysfunction, hearing loss, and even Alzheimer's.
Taken at face value these seemingly disparate symptoms of old age aren’t all that unexpected. However, if you look at them from the perspective of my sleep breathing paradigm, you’ll begin to see how it’s your breathing and not necessarily your age that’s making you feel sick and tired.
Too Many Bathroom Trip—Risky For Your Health
It's been shown that going to the bathroom frequently at night is not because you're making too much urine, but because you stop breathing and you think you have to go to the bathroom. One recent study showed that going to the bathroom two or more times per night increases your chances of dying by 50%. There have even been many anecdotal reports of hair regrowth after definitive treatment for sleep apnea. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a very well-known complication of sleep apnea. Having ED can predict the presence of sleep apnea in the majority of patients.
Brain Damage From Poor Breathing While Asleep
Untreated sleep apnea also increases your chances of microscopic strokes and small vessel blockages in multiple, critical areas of the brain. One recent study showed that sleep apnea patients have 20% smaller brain volume in the Mammary bodies. Another showed smaller brain tissue densities in critical areas of the brain that controls memory, executive function, breathing and respiration. Untreated sleep apnea patients have much more viscous (thick) blood that can stagnate and clot in small vessels in the brain. One area that's particularly sensitive are the small vessels that supply the high-frequency sensing areas of the inner ear.
All these issues begin when you're young, but begin to manifest in your middle years, progressing to full-blown medical complications when you reach your 60’s and 70’s. As you can see, how narrow you upper breathing passageways are determines how quickly you age or how often you become sick. Now that I'm in my mid-40s, if I don't get at least 7 hours of sleep, or if I eat later than usual, I definitely feel worse the next day. This is why it's important to do everything possible to breathe well at night while sleeping, in addition to a healthy lifestyle that includes a good diet, regular exercise and smart decisions when it comes to your sleep.