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Who's minding the snore? New at-home sleep test could boost sleep and avoid future heart problems

After a lifetime of emitting a Stihl MS 881-worthy respiratory buzz that could cleave through a sequoia like butter, columnist Tammy Swift learns that her apnea could be much easier to detect these days — thanks to a compact, at-home sleep test.

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FARGO — I hail from a long line of deviated septums, narrow air passages and underperforming nasopharynxes.

In short, my people are world-champion snorers.

My dad had a rafter-shaking, wall-crumbling snore. My mother also saws logs, albeit in a more ladylike way.

Naturally, I have inherited their lousy nighttime sleeping physiology. Factor in cold, dry air and I don't just saw logs. I can emit a Stihl MS 881-worthy respiratory buzz that could cleave through a sequoia like butter.

And I'm not alone. About 30 million Americans are believed to have sleep apnea — and only 6 million of those cases are diagnosed, according to the American Medical Association. Untreated, apnea can cause everything from high blood pressure and heart problems to strokes and cognitive problems. It also ratchets up cortisol levels, making it difficult to lose weight and easier to develop Type 2 diabetes.

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It is more common in overweight individuals but you don't need to be chubby to have it. About 15 years ago, I lost a great deal of weight and snored more than ever.

Sometime in the early 2000s, when my health care practitioner was trying to determine why I was always tired — and didn't want to write “just lazy and really likes reality TV" on my chart — she ordered a sleep test for me.

Back then, this was an elaborate ritual. You checked into a sleep clinic the evening before The Big Sleep and were encouraged to “sleep, just as you would at home.” (What? Do you mean sleep clinging to the edge of the bed while my 8-pound dog somehow claimed the rest of it and getting up at least twice to eat chocolate chip cookie dough straight out of the package while catching Marie Osmond’s Day-Glo poncho collection on QVC?)

Except here, you needed to be hooked up to sensors and electrodes and wheezlebobs like Frankenstein’s monster. Then you were left in a hotel-like room while people observed your wheezing, drooling, sleep-snorting splendor.

In other words: Relax now!!!

They didn’t want to give me a sedative because that would affect my natural sleeping patterns (unlike the 12 electrodes glued to my back and chest, the vacuum cleaner hose taped to my face and the Greek chorus observing my slumber).

But when it became apparent that I put the restless in restless leg syndrome, they did give me a Valium.

Forever concerned about grades (thanks a lot, achievement-oriented parents!), I was in such fear of failing the sleep test that I failed to sleep.

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It was one of the longest nights of my life, as I tossed, turned, tried to read myself to sleep and counted enough sheep to rival the Ovis aries population of Australia.

In between, my mind raced through a litany of real and imagined problems: Is my dog still hogging the bed without me? Do people who love “Punk’d” have a sadistic streak? (Hey, it was 2005.) Does my boss like me? I wonder if they’ll ever bring back fen-phen; that stuff worked! What is the ozone layer doing these days? I could really use a peanut butter cookie. Did I turn off the iron? What about terrorists? And, more importantly: Do the people who work at a sleep lab have sleep problems, being as they need to stay up all night and sleep during the day?

After a completely rest-free night of sleep, the technicians informed me that I hadn’t slept long enough to capture much valuable data. So now I had to stay at the sleep lab another day, so they could at least capture data from my naps.

And I — who believes that if God didn’t like napping, he wouldn’t have invented Thanksgiving, my college freshman English professor or those chairs at the centers of shopping malls — still couldn’t sleep.

After all that, it’s understandable that I didn’t want to do another sleep test. And so I've spent the last decade and a half snoring and walking around chronically tired.

Fortunately, another health provider recently encouraged me to again explore a solution to my ongoing fatigue. She told me that sleep-assessment technology has improved so much that most patients can test themselves at home. Today’s sleep test basically consists of a watch, a probe stuck on the neck and one of those pincher-thingies which are clamped onto the finger to measure oxygen.

Piece of cake.

Then my provider told me a story that sealed the deal. She said her own father —a wiry, muscular, on-the-go rancher — snored for years. When he started having heart trouble, doctors diagnosed him with cardiomyopathy, caused by a thickening of the walls of his heart which made it difficult for that organ to pump blood to the rest of his body. They deduced his apnea was so bad that it forced his heart to constantly overwork, while never receiving the necessary recovery time that restorative, apnea-free sleep provides. That’s all I needed to hear.

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So in the next week or so, I plan to receive the equipment for my home sleep test. And once they find the inevitable apnea, I suppose I will be outfitted with the "full Vader" — the ominous-looking face mask that will keep my flabby nasopharynx in shape.

May the snores be with me.

Related Topics: HEALTHWELLNESSFARGO
Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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