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Dealing with sleep apnoea

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During a test for sleep apnoea Rich Smith stepped onto the scale, looked at the reading and wondered: who else is standing on the scale with me?

His quest for a healthier, trimmer self began about two years ago when his boss at HSBC Bermuda gave everyone a pedometer and started an office walking programme.

“I got the pedometer and the idea was to work up to the recommended 10,000 steps a day,” Mr Smith said. “I wanted to see how fast I could get up to my 10,000 steps a day, but also I was wearing it in the night-time. It monitors how active you are in your sleep.”

The results showed that Mr Smith was not getting a good night's rest and was a very active sleeper, a possible health red flag. His doctor sent him to a local specialist who sent him to Boston to be tested for sleep apnoea, a common condition where you stop breathing during sleep for short intervals.

“The first thing they do is weigh you,” he said. “I weighed over 300lbs. I knew I was heavy but I didn't realise how heavy I had gotten. They set you up for one night of sleep testing. After the first night, if you do have it, they will bring you back for a second night.”

When he awoke after the first night a technician told him he would definitely be back for another night.

“He said: you don't sleep, you just have this whole war going on,” said Mr Smith.

Mr Smith was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) the most common type of sleep apnoea, caused by a narrowing of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses during sleep. When this happens, the amount of oxygen in the blood may drop. Normal breathing then starts again with a loud snort or choking sound.

With the diagnosis a lot of things began to make sense for Mr Smith. His wife said he was a heavier snorer and he often felt tired during the day. When you have sleep apnoea your deep sleep cycles are constantly being interrupted so you don't wake up feeling rested. During the first night of testing, Mr Smith was so exhausted he fell asleep while being wired up.

People diagnosed with OSA are given an oxygen mask and portable oxygen tank to use during the night.

“The first night I had my mask my wife had the best night's sleep of our marriage because there wasn't a freight train going through the house,” he said.

These days Mr Smith is feeling a lot more rested, and he uses his extra energy to power walk daily.

“I got myself up to 10,000 steps really quick,” he said. “I kept going and kept going. We had a contest at work. People had to meet daily quotas of steps. I won an iPad, the grand prize for the year.”

He said seeing the numbers mount up on the pedometer acted as motivation and gave him something to aim for.

“There are times I am having a lazy day and I have 7,500 steps and it is 9pm,” he said. “I will walk down the street and back. If I still haven't made it I will do a bit more. I hit my first big target which was to lose 100lbs. That took me since about 19 months. I still have more to loose.”

This year he plateaued and stopped losing weight. A friend suggested he try a low starch diet. Now he only eats sugars and starches one day a week.

“When I started doing that, the weight starting coming down again,” he said. “It was hard to do at first. Those starches just taste too good, but I feel healthier and I am a lot more active. I can get more things done. My blood pressure was good to start with, so that wasn't an issue.”

He does the bulk of his walk in the morning, waking up at 4am. He has breakfast and then walks for an hour in town, showers and is at work by 8am.

“I don't lose any family time, because my walking is done in the morning,” he said. “My wife, Deanna, does a lot of walking. Her walking encouraged me that it was a good thing to do. And it's an easy thing to do. You don't need to go to a gym. You don't need any special equipment, although I use walking sticks now.”

He said when he started losing weight lots of people were encouraging. Some people even asked for his advice.

“I invited them to come walking with me, but they never showed up,” he said.

He did the Catlin Middle to End walk recently which was close to 40,000 steps.

“I don't know if I would do it again,” he said. “I am good for four or five miles at a time. Fifteen miles in one day is pushing it for me.”

Mr Smith is not yet at his target, and is still working on getting to the ideal weight for himself.

Rich Smith has lost over 100 pounds after being diagnosed with sleep apnea. Photo Akil Simmons
Rich Smith before starting a walking regimen.
What is sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound. Sleep apnoea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. When your breathing pauses or becomes shallow, you’ll often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep. As a result, the quality of your sleep is poor, which makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnoea is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness.

See your doctor if you have these signs of sleep apnoea:

Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)

Loud snoring, which is usually more prominent in obstructive sleep apnea

Episodes of breathing cessation during sleep witnessed by another person

Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath, which more likely indicates central sleep apnoea

Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat

Morning headache

Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)

Attention problems

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Published September 11, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 11, 2013 at 9:10 am)

Dealing with sleep apnoea

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