Sleep apnea and its related symptoms are more than just annoying. Left untreated, they can be life-threatening, according to a recent study released by the American Heart Association. Sleep apnea has been linked to high blood pressure, plaque buildup, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks and strokes.

If you snore or sleep with someone who does, it is important to find out the underlying cause. According to the National Sleep Foundation, approximately 12 million Americans have sleep apnea. There are three types including obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea (CSA) and mixed sleep apnea, which is a combination of the other two types.

The most common form of sleep apnea is OSA, a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway properly open. While the condition is particularly prominent in overweight men over the age of 40, it can affect women as well. Obesity, chronic nasal congestion, large tonsils, or other structural abnormalities which block the airway can increase the risk of OSA. Certain chronic medical conditions that affect the lungs can also cause sleep apnea. Symptoms of OSA include chronic snoring, restlessness, excessive daytime drowsiness, depression and difficulty concentrating.

The potential danger lies in the fact that OSA causes the heart to work extra hard at night. During the periods of repeated breathing pauses, the heart becomes overtaxed. This can result in impaired blood flow, weak arteries and the accumulation of "bad plaque" which can lead to serious cardiovascular problems.

The good news is that sleep apnea is a treatable condition. It is typically diagnosed through a sleep study performed at an outpatient clinic. Once it is diagnosed, your holistic practitioner and your sleep specialist can work together to develop a treatment plan for you. Treatment protocol usually includes lifestyle adjustments such as dietary changes, nutritional supplements, regular exercise and stress reduction techniques. Many OSA patients use a constant positive airway pressure (CPAP) device which gently pushes air through a mask to keep the airway open and reduce the added stress on the heart. While the CPAP can seem intrusive at first, many people report that it puts an end to their symptoms and they wake up feeling rested.

There is nothing more refreshing than a good night's sleep. If you exhibit any symptoms of sleep apnea, it is vital that you talk to your health care provider to avoid serious complications and rediscover the beauty of sweet dreams.