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When Exercise Becomes Hazardous To Your Health

Posted Jul 03 2009 2:45pm

As the obesity numbers keep climbing, everyone wants to eat less and to exercise more. This is great if you’re able to exercise moderation and common sense. But if you’re already sick and your frame of reference is unhealthy to begin with, it’s difficult to know when enough is enough. 

Just as those with anorexia diet excessively to cover up their faulty body image, some people with sleep breathing problems like upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS), or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), abuse exercise as a means to cope with the lethargy created by their chronic sleep deprivation.

Addicted to Exercise

A lot of patients I see with UARS and OSA become exercise junkies in the same way that people who don’t sleep enough become coffee addicts. Rather than consume substances to give them a "high", these exercise addicts crave the endorphin fix they get while working out to overcome the constant fatigue they feel from not getting the quality sleep they need. Many of them admit that If they miss even one day of working out, they’ll get agitated, moody, and sometimes downright catatonic. 

For these people, exercise or any physical activity is a coping mechanism for the constant energy drain they feel. The problem is, like any drug, too much exercise, if it’s used to deter them from taking care of their underlying sleep breathing problem, will manifest later into health complications that no amount of exercise may be able to cure. 

What’s Your Sleep Position?

Obviously, not everyone who exercise excessively do so to compensate for an underlying sleep breathing problem. One quick and simple way I use to discern who is and who is not susceptible to having a sleep breathing problem is to ask whether or not they can or like to sleep on their backs. You see, those with sleep breathing problems can only sleep on their sides or more commonly their stomachs. The reason being, that they’ll have difficulty breathing when they’re sleeping otherwise. 

To summarize, my sleep-breathing paradigm proposes that all modern humans have difficulty breathing at night to various degrees due to our unique upper airway anatomy. The voice box is located underneath the tongue, as opposed to animals, where the voice box is located behind the tongue. This location of the voice box under the tongue is necessary for complex speech and language. But this is also what makes our airway vulnerable and unprotected, making us more prone to having the various breathing and swallowing problems that we, as modern humans have. 

What’s worse, it’s thought that due to a radical change in our diets (highly processed foods and refined sugars) over the past century, our jaws are getting narrower and we have more dental crowding. Furthermore, dentists have stated that introduction of bottle-feeding to infants can aggravate dental crowding and malocclusion, which makes everything much worse. All these factors aren’t the only reason for everyone’s sleep problems, but they are problematic if your anatomy is already predisposed. 

So what does breathing have to do with sleep quality? There are two components to this issue: When lying flat on your back, your tongue falls back partially, due to gravity. This narrows the breathing passageway behind your tongue to various degrees. As you fall asleep, the deeper level of sleep you enter, the more your muscles relax, and at a certain point, your tongue can fall back and obstruct your breathing. The more narrow your airway (due to smaller jaws or inflammation due to a cold or allergies), the more likely you’ll stop breathing and wake up to turn over. When you were young, you tossed and turned and eventually figured out that you can sleep much better when sleeping on your side or stomach. The problem is that even on your side or stomach, it’s never perfect, and you’re not able to get deep, efficient sleep, no matter how long you sleep.

Sleep Among Athletes

It’s also not too surprising that many personal trainers and fitness professionals have very similar features: Almost invariably they prefer to sleep only on their sides or stomachs. The same can be said about bodybuilders—a personal trainer/natural body builder friend of mine told me that almost every one in her gym snores. Snoring, incidentally, is a very common trait amongst those who have OSA or UARS. 

Professional football players also have a much higher incidence of obstructive sleep apnea. About 1/3 of all linemen were found to have mild or moderate sleep apnea. Many people assume that this is due to the abnormally thick necks that many football players have. However, it’s not only the fat in the neck—it’s also the muscle mass that impinges on the soft tissues of the upper airway. So in theory, the more muscle bulk you have in your neck, the more breathing problems you’ll have while sleeping, and therefore more fatigue to cope with. This in turn, makes you work all that much harder than let’s say, someone else who may not be sleep deprived, to get the same level of intensity.  It’s hard to say which came first, the sleep breathing problem, or the intense work outs, but once it’s started, it ends up being a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. 

Sleeplessness Can Aggravate Injuries

As a long time track and field enthusiast, I know how important it is to eat right and exercise–especially as you get older. Running helped invigorate me after being cloistered for days studying for finals during medical school, and it still helps me maintain my health while balancing the demands of my work and family. Yet, there are times when I’ve let the running take control. This often happens when I’m outpaced by someone in my age group, or when I’m coping with a stressful event. During these times, I’d often train to the point of illness or injury—at which point, I’m temporarily unable to do the one thing that keeps me healthy and sane.

In this way, if you’re an exercise junky, you’re also more prone to having injuries. It’s like that saying: "The higher you climb, the harder you fall." Unfortunately, once injured, it becomes all that much harder to gain the momentum back. What often occurs is common trap for any athlete but much worse if you have UARS or OSA. The sudden lack of activity can cause you to eat more due to increased levels of stress from increased sleep deprivation. As you gain weight, your upper airway narrows even further, leading to worse deep sleep quality. Another scenario that can happen is if you injure your neck or shoulder. This will prevent you from being able to sleep on your side or stomach, which again, aggravates the vicious cycle.

What I just described may seem a little far fetched, but if you are prone to constant fatigue, snore, or have any other chronic health problems like chronic sinusitis, nasal congestion, throat problems, then the sleep breathing paradigm can potentially explain and help you avoid the various health complications you may experience down the road. One way to see where you’re headed is to look at your parents. More often than not, one or both your parents may snore heavily, and in many cases will have one or more of the complications of untreated obstructive sleep apnea: depression, anxiety, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, heart attack or stroke. 

The best way for you to stay healthy and fit is to eat well, exercise, and most importantly, to sleep better.
 
 

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