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My Sleep Apnea: The Beginning

It's time for a new occasional feature! Rejoice! In this column, I'll talk about my personal experience being diagnosed with sleep apnea, what treatments are available, the science behind the condition, and (hopefully) my miraculous improvement after being treated. For this first entry, I'll talk about the experience leading up to my sleep study. In future columns I'll reveal the diagnosis and treatment, and you can follow along as I try to catch some sleep. Before we begin the narrative, let's get a quick definition of "sleep apnea" from Wikipedia (slightly edited for clarity by me):

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. Each episode, called an apnea, lasts long enough so that one or more breaths are missed, and such episodes occur repeatedly throughout sleep. The standard definition of any apneic event includes a minimum 10 second interval between breaths, with either a neurological arousal, a blood oxygen desaturation of 3-4% or greater, or both arousal and desaturation. Sleep apnea is diagnosed with an overnight sleep test called a polysomnogram, or a "Sleep Study" which is often conducted by a pulmonologist.

...the individual with sleep apnea is rarely aware of having difficulty breathing, even upon awakening. Sleep apnea is recognized as a problem by others witnessing the individual during episodes or is suspected because of its effects on the body. Symptoms may be present for years (or even decades) without identification, during which time the sufferer may become conditioned to the daytime sleepiness and fatigue associated with significant levels of sleep disturbance.

My sleep problems started probably ten years ago, during college, when I became aware that my snoring was really loud. And let me dwell on this a moment -- we're talking sawing logs with industrial machinery loud. The term "epic" was used to characterize my snoring, and neighbors in my college apartment building actually complained. I tried using several nose-opening devices, nasal sprays (disgusting!), sleeping with my mouth closed, and different sleeping positions, but nothing seemed to help. Eventually I ended up in a corner apartment where my neighbors couldn't hear me: problem solved?

Rewinding a few years...at some point during my teenage years, my father had been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. He and I have very similar body types, including a predisposition for charming plumpness as well as a relatively narrow airway in the throat. I have a small mouth (at least relative to my neck), and I still have my tonsils. So it stood to reason that I might develop obstructive sleep apnea as well.

In the time since my snoring became an issue and my recent diagnosis, I really didn't do anything about my sleep problems. I've always been a very sleep-positive person, often sleeping in until noon (and beyond) on weekends. Over the last year or two, I found myself even sleepier: spending entire weekend days asleep, and ultimately not feeling refreshed. Something was wrong. I went to my doctor, who did a bunch of blood tests and ultimately referred me to the Sleep Disorders Program at a local medical institution.

The sleep specialist had me fill out extensive questionnaires about my sleep history and habits, and did some physical tests and a complete interview before prescribing a sleep study. Now, let me back up a little bit here: I actually had a sleep study before. Three years ago, in a similar bout of sleeplessness, I had been sent off to a somewhat lower-rent sleep clinic for a study (which was not preceded by a consultation with a sleep specialist). That experience was a disaster: I spent the night covered in wires and surgical tape, vaguely panicked, and ultimately unable to sleep. After ten hours, they finally discharged me without having slept at all. The study was inconclusive, and my insurance paid handsomely for the ordeal. So when I was prescribed another sleep study, I was wary. Well, let's just say it: I hated the idea. The previous study was awful, lying in the dark for ten hours struggling to sleep while connected to various machines, occasionally being interrupted by lab techs over a speaker asking me why I wasn't sleeping. I didn't want to go through that again to end up with nothing.

This time, things would be different, the sleep specialist said. For one thing, the new sleep study would be carried out in a modified hotel suite, rather than a hospital room. In the new study, I was encouraged to bring my own pillows from home (this actually was a real problem at the old study -- their pillows were awful). For another thing, my doctor prescribed Ambien as a sleep aid during the study, and suggested I get used to taking it prior to that night. Finally, being aware of my previous experience, the staff was extra-nice and accommodated my one odd request: I wanted the room to be as cold as possible, to get as close to my home situation as possible. (I sleep in a fortress of solitude in the frozen North.) With the air conditioning set at 64, I was all set.

Next entry: I'll talk about the sleep study -- what was involved, what they were looking for, and how it went. Do you have sleep apnea? Share your experiences in the comments!

(Image courtesy of American Academy of Family Physicians.)

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Why You Should Think Twice About Drinking From Ceramics You Made by Hand
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Ceramic ware is much safer than it used to be (Fiesta ware hasn’t coated its plates in uranium since 1973), but according to NPR, not all new ceramics are free of dangerous chemicals. If you own a mug, bowl, plate, or other ceramic kitchen item that was glazed before entering the kiln, it may contain trace amounts of harmful lead.

Earthenware is often coated with a shiny, ceramic glaze. If the clay used to sculpt the vessel is nontoxic, that doesn’t necessarily mean the glaze is. Historically, the chemical has been used in glazes to give pottery a glossy finish and brighten colors like orange, yellow, and red.

Sometimes the amount of lead in a product is minuscule, but even trace amounts can contaminate whatever you're eating or drinking. Over time, exposure to lead in small doses can lead to heightened blood pressure, lowered kidney function, and reproductive issues. Lead can cause even more serious problems in kids, including slowed physical and mental development.

As the dangers of even small amounts of lead have become more widely known, the ceramics industry has gradually eliminated the additive from its products. Most of the big-name commercial ceramic brands, like Crock-Pot and Fiesta ware, have cut it out all together. But there are still some manufacturers, especially abroad, that still use it. Luckily, the FDA keeps a list of the ceramic ware it tests that has been shown to contain lead.

Beyond that list, there’s another group of products consumers should be wary of: kiln-baked dishware that you either bought from an independent artist or made yourself. The ceramic mug you crafted at your local pottery studio isn’t subject to FDA regulations, and therefore it may be better suited to looking pretty on your shelf than to holding beverages. This is especially true when consuming something acidic, like coffee, which can cause any lead hiding in the glaze to leach out.

If you’re not ready to retire your hand-crafted ceramic plates, the FDA offers one possible solution: Purchase a home lead testing kit and analyze the items yourself. If the tests come back negative, your homemade dishware can keep its spot on your dinner table.

[h/t NPR]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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