If you wake up every morning needing to hack up lots of thick mucous or have throat pain, hoarseness, or a chronic cough, you’re not alone. You may think it’s the beginning of a cold, but a cold doesn’t continue for weeks to months without progressing into full-blown viral symptoms.
Instead, these symptoms are the beginnings of the most common throat problem sleep apnea sufferers face. And as I explain below, without understanding why this occurs, it can be one of the hardest problems to treat.
Beware of the “vacuum effect.”
People with obstructive sleep apnea are more prone to breathing problems at night due to partial or total collapse of one or more areas of the entire upper airway, from the nose to the tongue. It’s usually worse when on your back since the tongue can fall back more in this position. During deep sleep, your muscles naturally relax, and you’ll be more susceptible to breathing stoppages.
Pressure sensors placed inside sleep apnea patients reveal that every time an apnea occurs, a tremendous vacuum effect is created inside the chest and throat, which literally suctions up your normal stomach juices into your esophagus and throat. This can occasionally happen, even for normal people, but if you have a late meal or a snack just before bedtime, you will have even more stomach juices lingering in your stomach to come up into the throat. If you happened to drink a nightcap, the situation is even worse since alcohol is a strong muscle relaxant.
Not only acid but also bile, digestive enzymes, and even bacteria come into your throat. Washings of lung, sinus, and ear contents have shown H. pylori, a common stomach bacteria, and pepsin, a major stomach digestive enzyme. So what comes up can cause severe irritation in your throat, provoking the mucous-secreting glands to try diluting these substances.
Although people generally attribute throat mucous to post-nasal drip, in most cases, there’s nothing dripping down the back of the throat. It’s actually coming from your stomach. However, in some cases, since your stomach juices can reach your nose, it can cause nasal congestion and inflammation, which can aggravate tongue and soft palate collapse by creating a vacuum effect downstream. Ultimately, it’s a vicious cycle.
Chronic acid and other irritating substances lingering in your throat can have other detrimental effects. One recent study showed that chronic acid exposure could numb or deaden the protective chemoreceptors in your throat. These are sensors that detect any acid in the throat to prevent aspiration of your stomach contents into your lungs. If these chemoreceptors sense any acid in your throat, a feedback signal is sent to the brain, causing you to wake up so that you can swallow. This is what’s called reflux arousal.
Treating reflux for good
So besides not eating late and avoiding alcohol close to bedtime, what else can you do?
I’m assuming that many of you reading this article are already being treated for obstructive sleep apnea via either CPAP, oral appliances, or even surgery. The problem is that no matter which option you choose, there will always be some degree of reflux. Taking acid reflux medications can help sometimes, but for the most part, these reflux medications don’t really do anything for reflux. All they do is to lower the acid content before it comes up into your throat.
Other options include stimulating your stomach via natural remedies or prescription medications to empty your stomach much faster. One fascinating study showed that using a combination of pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and a pro-motility agent (domperidone) eliminated snoring in most people. Unfortunately, we don’t have the equivalent of domperidone here in the U,S. Other similar medications are available but have more serious side effects.
This is why eating early, at least 3-4 hours before bedtime, is so important whether or not you have obstructive sleep apnea. The same also applies to alcohol. If your nose is stuffy, talk with your doctor to find a way to breathe better through your nose. Make sure you’re sleeping in your preferred or optimal sleep position. Lastly, work with your sleep physician to fully optimize your sleep apnea treatment, no matter which option you choose.
Steven Y. Park is an otolaryngologist and author of Sleep, Interrupted: A Physician Reveals The #1 Reason Why So Many Of Us Are Sick And Tired.