What is Sleep Apnea?

Seen in all age groups, and both sexes, this under-recognized problem can contribute to high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

A number of other symptoms that can be associated with sleep apnea, and that are often not recognized as such, include headaches on awakening, dry mouth on awakening, sweating during sleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking frequently during the night to urinate, mood and memory problems, worsened heartburn and reflux at night, and sexual dysfunction.

The disorder is characterized by obstruction of the upper airway (typically at the level of the throat) that reduces partially, or completely, the flow of air through the throat into the lungs.

This process is associated with an increase in breathing effort, and typically a drop in the body’s blood oxygen level, resulting in an arousal, or awakening from sleep.

Those with the disorder often complain of being tired and worn out, and not being refreshed by sleep, that results from their sleep being interrupted up to hundreds of times in a night, even without the affected person being aware of these interruptions. Though seen most often in those who are overweight, thin persons are also affected.

How Sleep Apnoea Affects the Body

Does This Sound Like You?

  • Are you irritable or depressed?
  • Have you fallen asleep at the wheel?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?

You may have sleep apnea.

This is not a happy scenario: You're soooo tired. As soon as your head hits the pillow, you're asleep.

But a little while later, someone nudges you awake.

You go back to sleep. Just as you get into a deep sleep, you're nudged again.

Sleep ... nudge ... sleep ... nudge.

All night long.

The next day, you might wake up with a headache, snap at your family over breakfast, have trouble concentrating at work.

Irritability. Car accidents. Depression. High blood pressure. All because of those nightmarish nudges throughout the night.

If you have Obstructive Sleep Apnea syndrome (OSA), you're getting those nudges. It's your body fighting for air. And sleep apnea may be one explanation for difficulty in controlling blood glucose and blood pressure levels.

Research and Associated Health Conditions

Snoring may seem comical, but obstructive sleep apnea is no joke. It can increase your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes -- and even make you more dangerous on the road.

New research adds more evidence to the link between sleep problems and metabolic disorders like diabetes.

Moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea are predictors of Type 2 diabetes, according to a new study presented at the ATS 2012 International Conference.

Researchers also found that the sleep condition and night-time hypoxemia (low oxygen levels in the blood) were linked with levels of glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c), associated with diabetes.

A recent study from researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Medicine showed that sleep-disordered breathing -- which includes obstructive sleep apnea -- is linked with an increased risk of dying from cancer

And an animal study earlier this year also demonstrated how sleep apnea can affect the brain's blood vessels -- by decreasing the "cerebral vessel dilatory function" (another way of saying that the blood vessels don't work as well as they're supposed to, which is a risk factor for stroke).

7 Health Problems Linked to Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

High Blood Pressure

Obstructive sleep apnea can contribute to high blood pressure in people who have it. The frequent nighttime wakings that plague people with sleep apnea cause hormonal systems to go into overdrive, which results in high blood pressure levels at night. Low blood-oxygen levels, caused by the cutoff of oxygen, may also contribute to hypertension in people with sleep apnea. The good news: Some people with high blood pressure who are treated for sleep apnea can cut back on their blood pressure medications.

Heart Disease

The disrupted oxygen flow caused by sleep apnea makes it hard for your brain to regulate the flow of blood in arteries and the brain itself. People with obstructive sleep apnea are ​at higher risk of heart attacks. ​ Stroke and atrial fibrillation – a problem with the rhythm of the heartbeat -- are also associated with obstructive sleep apnea.

Type 2 Diabetes

Sleep apnea is very common among people with type 2 diabetes – up to 80% of diabetics have some obstructive sleep apnea. Obesity is a common risk factor for both disorders. Although studies haven’t shown a clear link between sleep apnea alone and type 2 diabetes, sleep deprivation can cause insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.

Weight Gain

Adding weight raises your risk of sleep apnea, and up to two-thirds of people with sleep apnea are severely overweight. ​ ​​Sleep apnea impairs the body’s endocrine systems, causing the release of certain hormones ​, which makes you crave carbohydrates and sweets. Also, people with sleep apnea who are tired and sleepy all the time may have lower metabolisms, which can also contribute to weight gain. Getting treatment for sleep apnea can make you feel better, with more energy for exercise and other activities.

Adult Asthma

Although the link to obstructive sleep apnea is not proven, people who are treated for sleep apnea may find they have fewer asthma attacks.

Acid Reflux

There’s no proof that sleep apnea causes acid reflux, persistent heartburn, but many people with sleep apnea complain of acid reflux, and treating it seems to improve apnea symptoms, say sleep physicians.

Car Accidents

Daytime grogginess can put people with sleep apnea at increased risk of falling asleep behind the wheel. People with sleep apnea are up to five times more likely than normal sleepers to have traffic accidents.

Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Aponea (OSA)

The increased risk for health problems linked to sleep apnea can be scary, but effective treatment for sleep apnea is available.

There are various treatments for OSA including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), oral appliances, surgery and weight loss.

In most cases, a sleep specialist will recommend a machine known as CPAP. Although it can take some getting used to, people who use CPAP feel better and are healthier.

CPAP is the principal and most effective and widely used means of treating sleep apnea. While you are asleep, this system delivers air into your airway through a specially designed mask. This creates enough pressure that keeps the airway open and produces immediate relief from sleep apnoea. A CPAP machine does not breath for you and you breathe as normal while using a CPAP machine.

CPAP therapy is NOT a cure for sleep apnea rather a treatment that controls the problem so long as the device is used.