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Understanding Sleep Apnea in Women: A Personal Journey from Physician to Patient

doctor is holding a stethoscope and a clipboard that they wrote sleep apnea on

As a physician specialist in women's health, I pride myself on understanding the vast array of health issues that can affect us. However, I recently found myself on the other side of the examination table, grappling with a condition I had never expected to face: sleep apnea. This journey from doctor to patient began not in the clinic but through personal experiences, an enlightening conversation on my podcast, Beyond the Paper Gown, and a nudge from my family.

Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when your breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. The most common form, Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), occurs when your airway gets blocked, usually by soft tissue in the back of the throat collapsing during sleep. It's a serious condition that, if left untreated, can lead to numerous health issues, including heart problems and daytime fatigue.

I, like many, believed sleep apnea was predominantly a concern for overweight, older men. However, I was surprised to learn that menopausal women are also at an increased risk, even thin women like me. Hormonal changes during menopause increase our risk, including a shift in weight distribution that may raise the risk of airway obstruction; if you have a small airway like mine, it doesn't take much to obstruct it. A study in Sleep Medicine Reviews highlighted that the prevalence of sleep apnea in menopausal women can range from 20% to 47%—meaning that up to nearly half of this demographic could be affected, a fact that had escaped my attention until my own diagnosis (Sleep Medicine Reviews, 2020). This wide range indicates that variables such as age, weight, and overall health impact on an individual's personal risk. Still, it underscores that a significant portion of menopausal women are at risk.

My own diagnosis journey began subtly, with my family mentioning my snoring—a common symptom of sleep apnea. Truth be told, my girls won't sleep in the same room with me when we travel because my snoring disturbs them. I corroborated this with irregular breathing patterns recorded by my OURA ring, prompting me to seek medical advice. My primary care physician recommended an overnight pulse oximeter test, which tracks oxygen saturation levels and can indicate breathing problems during sleep. Though this test pointed towards abnormal breathing patterns, it wasn't definitive.

Consequently, I was referred to a sleep specialist and underwent a comprehensive overnight sleep study known as polysomnography. This study, which monitors brain waves, oxygen levels, heart rate, and breathing during sleep, conclusively diagnosed me with moderate sleep apnea.

Understanding and treating sleep apnea is crucial. Without treatment, it can lead to severe health issues, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and memory problems. Treatment options vary based on the severity of the condition but can include lifestyle changes, Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliances, an implantable device, or even surgery in severe cases.

Navigating this personal health challenge has been an eye-opening experience for me. It reinforced the notion that sleep apnea does not discriminate—it can affect anyone, regardless of body type or health knowledge. This experience has deepened my empathy and understanding as a physician and my appreciation for experts like Dr. Valeri Cacho, who shared her expertise with me on our podcast. It's a reminder of the importance of listening to our bodies and being proactive in seeking treatment. Also, it's a call to action for individuals and healthcare professionals alike to recognize the many faces of sleep apnea and ensure it is diagnosed and treated promptly, allowing for a healthier and more vibrant life.


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