Sleep apnea occurs when a person has difficulty breathing during sleep. Holistic dentists are a big part of a treatment plan for sleep apnea. Dr. Nammy Patel, founder of Green Dentistry, discusses diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea from a dentist’s perspective. Listen or read more to find out the secrets of sleep apnea.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Dr. Nammy Patel, founder of Green Dentistry in San Francisco, California. Helping patients recognize the vital connection between dental health and whole-body health. Today, our topic is sleep apnea. Welcome, Dr. Nammy.

Dr. Nammy Patel: Hi, John.

John: So, Dr. Nammy, what is sleep apnea and how many people suffer from it?

Dr. Nammy:  Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder, and what happens is that you’re not able to breathe at night. And when that happens, it causes significant health issues. It’s estimated that 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and 80% of those are moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea that are undiagnosed.

Symptoms and Treatment for Sleep Apnea

John: Okay. Do you know what some of the signs or symptoms of sleep apnea are that present themselves?

Dr. Nammy:  Yes. The first would be inability to sleep. That is the most common one, you twist and turn and twist and turn. The other thing is also high blood pressure is a very common response of sleep apnea. The other thing is waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep or feeling unrested when you wake up. The other one that’s very common is you snore.

John: Right. I think my wife is probably undiagnosed like one of those people that you mentioned, but I think she likely has this as well. She’s kind of a snorer and wakes up. She always complains about waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep right away. How does a doctor treat sleep apnea and how does that fit in with you as a holistic dentist? How does that affect sleep apnea?

Dr. Nammy:  So, the biggest thing that happens with sleep apnea is [the] majority of that dentists are not talking about it or asking about it and the nose is part of the head and neck and that’s what the dentists are responsible for is the head and neck. And, so, making sure that our patients are breathing is really key. The first thing we notice is a deviated septum or we can see the nostrils as the patients are laying down. So, we can see a lot of obstruction many times. So, that’s a great conversation to start. Or, “hey, does your wife complain about you snoring all the time? Are you able to sleep?” And [the] majority of the times, the patients are giving us this information, “I don’t sleep as well. I have a high stressful job, I have all these things going on.” And then we take a step deeper and we ask more questions.

And as we ask more questions, we recommend that the patient does testing. And that is done through their medical provider, which is a sleep study. So, what a sleep study does is it monitors someone while they’re sleeping to see how many times are you not able to breathe. And that’s what sleep apnea means is you’re not breathing. And that’s what wakes you up is because your body is designed to keep you alive. If you’re not breathing, your body’s going to wake you up and say, start breathing right away, otherwise you’re dying. So it is our autonomic response that our body does in order to keep us alive. And that’s what sleep apnea is.

And, in order to diagnose it, there are several reasons for sleep apnea. Sometimes it’s because the nose is very congested and people are not able to breathe properly. The second it could be that it’s a structural problem so that the airway is actually collapsed. So, what that means is that the airway is too small so that not enough oxygen is getting to the rest of the body and that our body is not able to prepare itself while we’re sleeping. So, it’s really important that we work with a medical provider and also an ENT many times to figure out if the person has a sleep apnea.

The other things that cause sleep apnea, believe it or not, is nutrition; food, dairy, gluten, things that patients are allergic to will cause them not to be able to breathe through their nose. And breathing through the nose is really important because it activates nitric oxide, which is a chemical that tells your body to start all cellular repair and activate growth hormone so that where you’re aging properly or healing properly and you’re able to function at your optimal best self.

A Holistic Dentist’s Role in Sleep Apnea Treatment

John: So how can a holistic dentist help with sleep apnea? Is it just that because you have people there, you’re talking to them about what their situation is, what their lifestyle is like and because you’re looking into their mouth and their nose and things like that, you’re able to diagnose this? Or does it have some other kind of direct connection with people’s teeth and their jaws and things like that?

Dr. Nammy:  Well, we find a lot of problems with their teeth. A lot of times I sleep apnea patients, we will see that they have a V shaped arch so their teeth are crooked. Also, when they have sleep apnea they’re not breathing through and those are breathing through the mouth so it’ll cause a lot of dry mouth and it will cause a lot of cavities and gum disease. The other thing we find is a lot of patients with sleep apnea actually end up clenching and grinding a lot. So, we definitely see dental issues with that. And instead of putting 28 crowns on there, which a traditional dentist is probably going to talk to you about, we like to go to the root cause and figure out where the problem is and can we fix that with a nasal device or an orthotic device that will get you breathing through your nose comfortably.

John: All right. So yeah, so your idea there is that the sleep apnea is not just a problem because people are waking up in the middle of the night and they’re tired all the time, but it’s really causing dental problems and maybe even the other way around that some of their dental issues or their shape of their mouth or whatever is may be helping to cause the sleep apnea. So, you’re working with both sides of that and really just trying to help somebody in their overall health.

Dr. Nammy:  Absolutely. And looking at things that, unless you’re looking for these things and really paying and taking the time and attention, paying that attention to detail is really the key because in a drill and fill office, the doctor basically does a filling and moves or it comes in for two minutes and moves, where we have our hygienists who are actually trained to evaluate our patients. Even our front office staff know how to ask patients for if they’re snoring or their significant others if they’re snoring. And, also, we recognize a lot of patients by just their posture. We will see that their posture is forward, like they’re almost walking as if they’re being pulled. And so that is a common sign of sleep apnea as well an airway obstruction.

John: All right, well that’s really interesting information about sleep apnea, Dr. Nammy. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Dr. Nammy:  My pleasure, John.

John: And for more information about Green Dentistry, visit the website at sfgreendentists.com or call (415) 578-9347.