Recurrent sinus infections, throat pain, ear fullness and chronic cough are some of the most common conditions that I see every day. You may think that I typically diagnose and treat for routine bacterial infections in these situations, but in most cases, they’re not really infections at all. What I do find, however, is that if you probe and look back at the patients’ history, there’s always some major life change or recent event that acted as a trigger for their symptoms, especially if their upper airway anatomy is already narrowed or predisposed. Here are 5 common examples:
Sleepless nights from a newborn child
The birth of a child is always a joyous event, but everyone knows that your life will change drastically all of a sudden. Your normal routines, eating habits, exercise regimens, and especially the timing for all these events will change. The sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and bad eating habits can promote weight gain, which can narrow your throat even further. This leads to more problems breathing at night, leading to less efficient sleep, leading to more weight gain. This applies to both the mother and the father.
It’s also a common phenomenon where a woman is never able to lose her pregnancy weight, despite extreme dieting or exercise. This leads to less effective sleep, increased fatigue, and various other health-related conditions.
Newfound independence, more depression
The freshman 15 is more than just an observation—there’s a good reason why college students gain weight all of a sudden during their freshman year. Dorm meals and cafeteria food tends to be starchy and very high in calories, and because of the buffet-style format, there can be problems with portion control. Home-cooked meals by parents, eaten at relatively normal times (5 to 7 PM), turns into eating later in the night: more episodes of pizza, take out food, and late night snacks while pulling all-nighters for exams.
Having stomach juices when you go to sleep will allow more acid and other stomach materials to regurgitate into your throat, leading to more frequent arousals and less efficient sleep. This leads to a cascade of metabolic, hormonal, and cardiovascular consequences that promotes weight gain. Drinking alcohol at night relaxes the throat even further, leading to more frequent breathing pauses.
This relative sudden change in your eating and sleep routines can definitely affect your mood and mental health. It’s not surprising that depression and anxiety peaks during the college years. This is also the time when the larynx (voice box) descends in the neck to its’ lowest position during maturation into adulthood. The lower your voice-box, the more the tongue can fall back, leading to more frequent breathing problems.
A new job or a promotion
It’s great to start a new job, or get that promotion that you’ve wanted. But just like any other major change in your life, your routines will change. You’ll stay later to impress your boss, skip meals, come home later and go to bed later. As a result, you’ll gain a few pounds. Some people can eventually adjust their schedules to accommodate a healthy sleep schedule, diet and exercise regimen, but others can’t. This is when things begin to go downhill.
Injury or surgery
Most people with sleep-breathing problems prefer to sleep on their sides or stomach. Any kind of injury or undergoing surgery can force you to sleep on your back, which causes more tongue collapse (due to gravity) and more obstructions and arousals (due to muscle relaxation in deep sleep). In fact, many patients have told me that their lack of sleep, physical activity and subsequent weight gain is what triggered a vicious cycle.
This applies mainly to women, but hormonal changes can affect men too. Loss of estrogen and progesterone can diminish their protective effects on the upper airway. In particular, progesterone is an upper airway muscle stimulant/dilator. As it begins to diminish in the early 40s, the tongue begins to relax more and more over the years, leading to less efficient sleep, and the typical vasomotor symptoms begin which includes hot flashes, night sweats, weight gain, mood swings, and irritability. Believe it or not, these symptoms can happen in young men, too. These are your body’s nervous system reaction to the changes with your sleep-breathing status.
As you can see, all of us will go through some or all of these events at some point in our lives. It’s natural as modern humans to be susceptible to these sleep-breathing related conditions. It may sound a bit depressing, but the good news is that now you’re aware of it, you can take preventive measures once it starts.