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Stress and Sleep Apnea: Is There a Link?

By Kristen Gasnick
Obstructive sleep apnea can be worsened by stress. Find out more about the link between these two health issues.

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by the blockage of airways during sleep. It results in repeatedly interrupted breathing throughout the night. Research shows that the disorder can activate the body's stress system, resulting in the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Unrelated stressors can also aggravate the condition, locking the patient in a negative cycle. 

Sleep Apnea and Stress

The blocked airways that result from obstructive sleep apnea are caused by the abnormal relaxation of the throat muscles during sleep. Stress does not cause obstructive sleep apnea directly, but it can worsen your symptoms. 

“Stress can make some of the symptoms of sleep apnea worse. In particular, stress is strongly linked to poor sleep quality, including difficulty falling asleep, not getting enough deep stage sleep, or fragmented sleep,” Chelsie Rohrscheib, PhD, sleep specialist and neuroscientist at Wesper, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “People with obstructive sleep apnea already sleep poorly, and stress can lead to additional sleep deprivation and associated symptoms,” Rohrscheib says.

While there is no direct causation between stress and obstructive sleep apnea, stress can increase the risk of developing other conditions that can, in turn, contribute to the development of obstructive sleep apnea. According to a 2019 review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, these conditions include obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Additionally, untreated obstructive sleep apnea can actually cause more stress by depriving you of restful sleep, resulting in elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2017 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 

While managing stress levels may not cure your sleep apnea, it may help improve your overall sleep quality. “Reducing stress can help a sleep apnea sufferer get better quality sleep, although they will still need to receive treatment for their sleep apnea before sleep returns to normal. Reducing stress may also have some benefit on blood pressure, which is usually elevated in sleep apnea sufferers,” Rohrscheib says.

Think you may have sleep apnea? Start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.