Why can't people learn to control their palate while asleep?

When I was six months old, I would wet the bed, and was liable to roll out of it if there weren’t high rails, even when I was wide awake.

By the time I was three years old, I had learned not to wet the bed or roll out of it if I was wide awake, but I was still liable to do it if I was asleep.

Now that I’m <mumble> years old, i don’t wet the bed, even if I’m sound asleep and have a really full bladder, and even if I dream (as I occasionally do) that I am in a restroom urinating. And I don’t roll out of bed, even if I’m sleeping in a strange bed that is much narrower than the one I’m used to. I somehow trained myself to monitor and control those actions while sleeping.

And yet, if I sleep on my back, I can’t breathe. If I lie on my back when I"m awake, I can control my soft palate or whatever and breathe just fine. But as soon as I doze off, something in my throat relaxes and blocks my trachea, and if I’m lucky, I immediately gasp and wake up. If I’m not, I might not breathe for longer than is healthy, and then gasp and wake up.

If I (and almost everyone else) can learn, apparently without much effort, to control my bladder, and to control how far I roll when I’m sound asleep, why can’t I learn to control my soft palate when I’m asleep?

You can control your soft palate when you’re awake? That is, you can shut it off like what happens in your sleep?

BTW, it’s called Sleep Apnea.

I’ve wondered the same thing.

A closely related issue is bruxism. AKA grinding teeth or clenching jaws at night. Lots of people do one or the other while sleeping. Which over the course of years harms teeth, causes TMJ, etc. Not good.

Why can’t we train that out?

It is an anatomical flaw. It is indeed the cause of most sleep apnea cases and I have it myself and have since I was a child. I went through radical surgery to have my ‘windpipe’ be reconstructed mainly by cutting every unnecessary piece of tissue out including my tonsils, adenoids, uvula and parts of of my nasal cavity. It worked a little but not completely just like it doesn’t for most people. It was worth a shot but only if you have a lot of money to spend and are willing to be functionally disabled from anywhere from a week to a month (I was closer to the former).

The good news is that the condition is easily treatable these days with a CPAP machine. Many people balk at them at first because they feel foreign but I learned to love my current one (a Resmed S9 Autoset). It is like having a spa treatment every night. The nasal pillows take less than 2 seconds to slip on and then you don’t have to worry about breathing anymore because it constantly monitors your respiration and makes sure you are getting just the right amount. Older CPAP’s were a bulky pain but they have advanced a lot in recent years.

If you think you may have it, I suggest you get a sleep study because it is a very serious condition that can take years off of your life but there are many solutions for it.

I know I have it, but although I can’t train myself to breathe on my back, I have trained myself to sleep on my side, so it’s not a huge inconvenience. But once in a while I wonder what would happen if I was in an accident, and was strapped into a gurney on my back in an ambulance or something, and couldn’t wake up because I was knocked unconscious rather than just asleep.

But never mind all that, since this is GQ. I’m wondering if there is a biological explanation for why a sleeping person can do some things, but not others. It seems to me that stiffening the palate, as I can do when awake, should be no harder than clamping down on the bladder, and should be much easier than preventing rolling out of bed, which requires awareness of the environment as well as the physical component.

You should still see a doctor for it, though – sleep apnea can be dangerous.

You can’t ‘train’ yourself out of it. It is an anatomical flaw and there is nothing you can do about it consciously. Some people have some success by losing weight but that was never my problem. I still had it when I was skinny as a rail. It is just the result of the back of your throat relaxing and collapsing during sleep and it will interrupt your sleep rhythms anywhere from dozens to hundreds of times a night as your survival reflexes kick in. That is no way to sleep and it is extremely hard on your heart and other body systems.

The only thing that is almost guaranteed to work is a CPAP machine. Many people resist the idea but they shouldn’t because modern ones aren’t a burden at all. You just slip on whatever nasal pillows or mask works for you and then sleep well for the rest of the night. Not only will it prolong your life, it will greatly improve the quality of your sleep and your life. I am a marginal case because I had the surgery to fix most of it and don’t absolutely have to use one all the time but I still prefer to use it because it is the most peaceful way to sleep.

I’m pretty sure that the back of an ambulance or a hospital are the safest places for that to happen. Their JOB is to make sure you stay alive and don’t succumb to things like respiratory blockage.

Ugh, me too. I can remember dozing off in 9th grade trigonometry (and I was the definition of fit) and actually feeling my soft palate drop down as I let out an embarrassing snork. Been like that ever since, fat or skinny. I’ve also got that torus palatinus (bony ridge in the anterior medial palate) deformity going on. I really need treatment for this, but haven’t got a doc to pay attention yet (though they are fine with prescribing me stimulants as well as sleeping pills. :confused:). Always exhausted.

Anyway, TonySinclair, I think you have an excellent question, and one I’ve wondered about before. Why can’t we learn to, essentially, breathe better during sleep in the same way that we learn not to pee the bed?

Again, it is easy to treat although sleep studies aren’t very fun (they offer in-home studies that you do yourself in many cases now) but you generally only have to do it once. The newer models of CPAP machines can improve your quality of life drastically. I bought my current one off of Craigslist for $350 from someone that needed it a whole lot more than I do but refused to even try it. It is smart enough to figure out what you need and fix it right away. It is also silent and unobtrusive. The older ones were a pain but that information is well out of date.

For anyone suffering from sleep apnea, just don’t. The solution is easy and inexpensive, There is no need to take years off of your life, be constantly sleepy and stress your body for something that is easily fixed.