10 Ways Sleep Apnea Can Be Harmful to Your Health

Sleep apnea doesn’t just interfere with your shut-eye; it can also increase your risk for heart disease, mood disorders, and more.

You already know about the importance of getting enough sleep, but if you have a condition called obstructive sleep apnea, you can snooze for more than eight hours and still not wake up feeling refreshed.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open during sleep, causing repeated pauses in breathing that last for at least 10 seconds, according to the Sleep Foundation. When this happens, your brain wakes you up briefly to reopen your airway, and this repeated pattern of sleep interruption, which can occur as many as 30 times or more in an hour, can limit your ability to get the deep, restful sleep you need.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), sleep apnea has been linked to a host of health problems, including an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and even glaucoma.

Adequate sleep means quality sleep, not just quantity, says Raj Dasgupta, MD, a pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine specialist at Keck Medicine of USC in Los Angeles. “Someone may be getting seven to eight hours of sleep but still feel tired because they’re not going into deep sleep,” says Dr. Dasgupta. “We all need deep sleep to rejuvenate.”

Here are just some of the ways sleep apnea can be harmful to your health.

1. Sleep Apnea May Harm Your Heart Health

Sleep apnea has been linked to heart conditions such as irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and heart attacks. If you have sleep apnea, you stop breathing when you sleep, which causes your heart rate to drop; when your body wakes you up to breathe again, your heart rate accelerates and spikes your blood pressure, according to the Sleep Foundation.

Sleep apnea also reduces oxygen levels in your blood, limiting the supply that goes to your vital organs, says Dasgupta. Your heart, like your other organs, needs oxygen to function properly.

This reduced oxygen also increases the levels of inflammation-causing chemicals in the blood that can damage the heart and blood vessels.

While it’s important to eat a heart-healthy diet and exercise regularly, treating sleep apnea and making sure you get enough sleep can also help reduce your risk of heart disease.

2. Sleep Apnea May Increase Your Risk of Stroke (and Vice Versa)

It’s unclear whether stroke or sleep apnea comes first, but experts caution that one condition could lead to the other.

For example, a review of studies found that sleep-disordered breathing — including sleep apnea — seems to increase stroke risk, and sleep disordered breathing is a common condition among people who’ve had a stroke. The researchers also noticed that both sleep apnea and stroke share a number of common risk factors, including obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Sleep apnea was strongly associated with atrial fibrillation (a potentially dangerous form of irregular heartbeat), coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, and diabetes, which are all risk factors for stroke.

3. Sleep Apnea May Cause Weight Gain

While not everyone who is overweight has sleep apnea, people who are obese are more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder, according to the Sleep Foundation. And if you have sleep apnea, you’re also at risk of gaining weight.

What’s behind the obesity–sleep apnea link? When you gain weight, fat can accumulate in the neck area and obstruct your breathing, leading to sleep apnea.

Plus, adds Dasgupta, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body doesn’t produce enough of the appetite-regulating hormone leptin, which helps reduce hunger, says Dasgupta. The lower the levels of leptin, the harder it is to control appetite and lose weight, he explains.

Sleep apnea may also increase your risk for excessive daytime sleepiness, which may decrease your physical activity levels and lead to weight gain. According to the Sleep Foundation, losing 10 percent of your body weight can make your sleep apnea less severe or even get rid of it completely.

4. Sleep Apnea Increases the Risk of High Blood Pressure

When you stop breathing and your oxygen levels fall, your brain sends a message to increase adrenaline in the body, which causes the heart to pump harder and blood vessels to constrict.  These changes occur in an effort to increase the amount of available oxygen to the heart and brain but also cause intermittent increases in blood pressure.  These changes can raise your risk for hypertension and place a significant stress on your cardiovascular system, according to the Sleep Foundation.

If you have sleep apnea and high blood pressure, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider to make sure your sleep apnea is treated. Treatment of sleep apnea is an important part of managing hypertension.

5. Sleep Apnea Raises Your Type 2 Diabetes Risk

According to the Sleep Foundation, having sleep apnea interferes with the body’s ability to regulate and metabolize glucose, which can increase your risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. That’s because sleep apnea limits the amount of time you spend in deep sleep, which is thought to be an important process for glucose regulation in the body.

The reverse is also true: If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to have sleep apnea. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), as many as 7 in 10 people with type 2 diabetes also have obstructive sleep apnea, and the more severe their symptoms, the more likely their odds of having uncontrolled glucose levels.

6. Sleep Apnea Increases Risk of Metabolic Syndrome

Research shows a connection between sleep apnea and metabolic syndrome, the name for a group of risk factors that increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other health problems.

According to the NHLBI, if you have three of the following risk factors, you have metabolic syndrome:

  • High blood pressure
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels
  • High blood sugar
  • Increased waist size or excess abdominal fat in the stomach area
  • High fasting blood sugar (a test result from a blood sugar test done after not having eaten anything for at least eight hours)

7. Sleep Apnea Can Affect Your Brain

It’s not just your body; sleep apnea can negatively impact your cognitive function, too. According to the NHLBI, sleep apnea has been associated with cognitive disorders, such as a decrease in concentration and attention, impaired motor skills, and even poor memory.

For example, one study found that people with untreated sleep apnea had more problems recalling specific details about their lives than those who didn’t have the sleep disorder.

Plus, sleep apnea can also hurt your head — literally. Because sleep apnea limits the amount of oxygen that goes to your brain, people with sleep apnea can wake up with a headache, says Dasgupta.

8. Sleep Apnea Is Linked to Depression and Anxiety

According to the Sleep Foundation, obstructive sleep apnea is associated with major depression, regardless of factors like weight, age, sex, or race.

In a study that assessed 284 newly diagnosed people with sleep apnea, researchers found that 15.5 percent had persistent, mild depression, and 6 percent had major depression. The researchers also found that obesity, daytime sleepiness, low physical activity, insomnia, low quality of life, and the use of sleep medication were all related to depression. (Interestingly, people with more severe cases of sleep apnea weren’t any more likely to develop depression than those with less severe forms of the disorder.)

Treating sleep apnea could help alleviate the symptoms of depression. One study on the topic saw nearly 73 percent of subjects who were suspected of having sleep apnea also had significant depression. After three months of receiving continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment — a facial mask that supplies air to the nasal passages — that number dropped to 4 percent.

Other research has also found that CPAP treatment can reduce the symptoms of depression in people with obstructive sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease.

9. The Risk of Glaucoma Is Higher If You Have Sleep Apnea

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), people who suffer from sleep apnea are more likely to develop glaucoma, an eye disease that can eventually cause vision loss, than those who don’t have apnea.

It’s not yet fully understood how sleep apnea may cause glaucoma, but as with other health problems associated with sleep apnea, researchers hypothesize that the eye disorder could stem from the decreased levels of oxygen circulating in the blood, according to the AAO.

10. Sleep Apnea Puts You at Greater Risk of Accidents and Other Safety Issues

In addition to the health effects of inadequate sleep, sleep apnea has also been shown to increase risk of accidents from driving while drowsy, according to the AASM. A study found that people with sleep apnea were 2.5 times more likely to be the drivers in motor vehicle accidents than people who don’t have apnea.

“One of the ways sleep apnea presents is as excessive daytime sleepiness,” says Dasgupta. “People may fall asleep behind the wheel or experience microsleep” — brief moments of sleep that last one to 30 seconds that you may not even realize you are experiencing.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, it’s important to be treated as soon as possible. If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea but continue to experience symptoms, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, talk to your doctor about whether you should try a new treatment.

The good news is that sleep apnea can be treated, and the related health risks can be reduced, says Dasgupta. Some people may be reluctant to go see a doctor and have a sleep study done because they’ve heard that you need to go to a sleep center to be hooked up to monitors and machines, he says, but the diagnosis process is much easier than it was in past decades.

“Today, a sleep study is not the Frankenstein’s monster with tubes coming out [that] you might picture,” says Dasgupta. “You can do a home sleep study in your own bed.”


Important Notice: This article was originally published at www.everydayhealth.com by Katherine Lee where all credits are due. Medically reviewed by Daniel Barone, MD.


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