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.
These seven health problems are linked to obstructive sleep apnea:
- 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. People with obstructive sleep apnea are more likely to suffer heart attacks and die in the middle of the night. The causes may be low oxygen or the stress of waking up often during sleep. Stroke and atrial fibrillation – a problem with the rhythm of the heartbeat -- are also associated with obstructive sleep apnea. 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.
- 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. Obstructive sleep apnea can often be cured if you lose enough weight, but that can be tough to do.
Being overweight causes fatty deposits in the neck that block breathing at night. In turn, sleep apnea impairs the body’s endocrine systems, causing the release of the hormone ghrelin, 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.
Treating Sleep Apnea
The increased risk for health problems linked to sleep apnea can be scary, but effective treatment for sleep apnea is available. 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. Talk to your doctor about treating your sleep apnea and preventing related health problems.