Sleep Apnea – Holistic ApproachesEmily Kielbiski, RHN, BASc. February 1, 2016
In 2014, my partner and I decided to live together after three years of exhausting, yet rewarding, long distance travel between Ottawa and Hamilton. We both moved to Toronto – him to pursue a career in sports analysis, and myself to complete schooling as a Registered Holistic Nutritionist at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. I already had a degree in nutrition from the University of Guelph, but always felt that there was more to a person’s overall health and happiness than just following Canada’s Food Guide.
During classes at CSNN, I learned of a broad spectrum of interesting and alternative approaches to various health conditions that took into consideration a person’s overall energy, mindset, physical appearance, and internal environment. I know now that this is the way nutrition is supposed to be viewed.
My partner, Johnny, has always been supportive of my alternative choices and menus, but his acceptance and understanding took on a deeper significance when we were recently faced with a serious diagnosis. I’ve always been fortunate to experience good quality sleep each night, but Johnny had a different history. Since childhood, he has never truly had a full night’s rest. He would wake up several times through the night, and his mind raced with busy thoughts when he was trying to fall asleep. And not surprisingly, he often felt tired in the morning.
On top of this, he suffered from severe sinus inflammation and mucous build-up, sometimes blowing his nose multiple times a day. After we moved in together, I found all of this out first hand, and more. There were many mornings I would wake on the living room couch, having been driven from my cozy bed by the sound of snoring. On more than one occasion I seriously contemplated the consequences of smothering a person with a pillow. In addition, there were a few scary instances in the middle of the night when I would notice Johnny jolting himself awake, stating that he had felt himself stop breathing altogether.
In a previous job where I worked at a medical clinic, many of the patients came in with a medical condition called sleep apnea, a health problem which causes a cessation of breathing during one’s sleep. I was curious to know if this was something Johnny might be experiencing, since many of the symptoms were there.
Sleep apnea can affect anyone, and has often been linked to excessive weight, anatomical abnormalities, or sinus complications. A few weeks later, I convinced Johnny to schedule himself for a sleep study which involved staying in a sleep clinic overnight. The technicians hooked him up to wires to monitor his heart rhythm and oxygen levels in the blood. For someone who already has trouble sleeping, Johnny was understandably worried about not sleeping through the duration of the study. He went anyway, and in the morning the technicians told him that in the little sleep he got he had actually stopped breathing 17 times! Moreover, each episode of apnea had lasted longer than ten seconds.
Johnny, a young and athletic man, was given the diagnosis of severe sleep apnea. He was prescribed a CPAP machine to use nightly (a machine that pumps oxygen into his airways). The sleep study physician informed Johnny that sinus issues are often linked to poor quality of sleep in patients with sleep apnea. So I wondered if a reduction in the amount of excess mucous that he’d suffered from his whole life could help to improve air flow and sleep quality.
Using the CPAP was important for crisis intervention, but was there more we could do to solve the problem on a longer term basis? Realizing that his sleep apnea, sinus difficulties, and whole-body health were inter-related, I resolved to discover methods of naturally reducing Johnny’s congestion in the hopes of improving air flow during his sleep.
Dietary Changes to Reduce Mucous
Approaching any ailment holistically means looking at many different factors that may be affecting the person. In this case, the first item to tackle was nutrition. There were many foods that Johnny was eating which were significant “mucous-enhancers”, meaning that they encourage mucous production – specifically in the sinus cavities. Some examples are dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), orange juice, and bananas (three of his favourite foods!). I suggested that he start decreasing his consumption of these foods, a practice that has proven difficult but rewarding in terms of reduced congestion.
Dairy (especially cheese) has been the hardest product to cut out, but probably the most beneficial. Research has shown that high calcium content can be a serious culprit in mucous issues, because without a high content of magnesium to balance it, calcium encourages mucous formation.
(Ed note: According to TCM theory, dairy and soy are considered ‘cold, damp’ foods which tend to encourage the production of mucous.)
We are continuing to gradually empower and inform ourselves further regarding easy alternatives to these mucous-forming foods. Now our fridge contains almond milk, non-dairy yogurt, and instead of bananas in smoothies we use avocado to get the same creamy texture.
There are many other foods that help to break down and flush out excess mucous, including the herb thyme, along with raw honey, cocoa powder (high in magnesium), and garlic. Mucolytic supplements (capable of dissolving, digesting, or liquefying mucus) that are also helpful include N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), as well as high doses of vitamin C – around 2 grams or more, depending on bowel tolerance.
According to Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, dry and hot herbs like turmeric and cinnamon are traditionally used to combat mucous formation, as mucous is normally classified as a cool and damp substance. All of these methods have improved the clarity of Johnny’s breathing and are helping to deepen the quality of his sleep.
(Editor’s note: Another interesting aspect of mucous is that the body, in its wisdom, creates this sticky substance to protect its delicate tissues from irritants. So when you reduce dietary allergens and inflammatory foods, the body will naturally start reducing its production of mucous. On the flip side, if you’re dealing with a lot of mucous, take a look at what dietary or environmental irritants are triggering the mucous overproduction.)
Improving Air Quality
The next thing we looked at was the environment. Our lungs, mouth, nose, and breathing passages are very sensitive to dust and chemical pollutants. Johnny loves to clean our apartment (not complaining about that!), but the cleaning products he was using may have been irritating the lining of sensitive nasal passages.
I told him that many of the harsh chemicals he was using could be replaced with pure white vinegar and a blend of powerful essential oils. We researched natural cleaning recipes and found some great ideas. He now uses equal parts vinegar and water, mixed with 10 drops each of tea tree and lemon oil to clean the bathroom. Dr. Bronner’s natural castile soaps are used as hand and dish soap, and my own creations of essential oil mists freshen the linens. Personally, I love using antibacterial lavender, and mood-uplifting grapefruit, essential oils.
(Editor’s note: for more information on good quality essential oils, see Young Living’s ad on page 25 in Vitality’s February 2016 issue, or visit your local health food store. I use bergamot, geranium, and basil essential oils for a calming and relaxing spray in the boudoir.)
Energetic Clearing Strengthens Breathing
Third and finally, we explored the energetic and mind/spirit connection. This is a component to holistic healing that is often overlooked, but one that can be quite effective when working with an open-minded person.
More specifically, each body system has certain energy pathways and meridians running through it (think Traditional Chinese Medicine acupuncture points).
Each system has its own emotional parallel energy, which one can explore further when seeing a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) or alternative health practitioner trained in energy healing.
Breathing is connected to the fourth chakra (or ‘heart chakra’). This chakra connects joy, love, compassion, and grief. The act of breathing and having clear sinuses can be symbolized using this metaphor: imagine breathing in fresh clean vital energy, and breathing out (“letting go”) of old, stale, and unnecessary emotions.
Exercises that Johnny has done to help strengthen his breathing include taking three slow, deep breaths every morning. At night we reflect on what we were thankful for during the day. And most importantly, we go outside for walks and breathe in the beautiful fresh air. Taking a stroll with a loved one along a trail or gazing at the trees really connects us to our lung energy and strength, as trees symbolize the transformation of life-giving air.
Slowly but surely Johnny’s sleep is improving. He wakes up more refreshed, his sinuses have begun to clear, and overall he feels more clear-headed.
Using the CPAP machine at night may continue to be a necessary intervention, but judging from the progress he’s made, I know we’re on the right track to full body health and happiness.