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4 Possible Effects of Sleep Apnea That May Surprise You

By Kyle Kirkland
Sleep apnea doesn’t just make you tired. It can lead to surprising and serious conditions in the absence of treatment.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that interrupts your sleep throughout the night. It disrupts your rest and, quite possibly, your overall well being. Every part of your health—physical, mental, and emotional—can be negatively affected if you don’t get enough quality sleep. Read on for more about four surprising ways sleep apnea can affect your health. 

Sexual Dysfunction

“Sexual dysfunction is one side effect of sleep apnea,” Carlos M. Nunez, MD and Chief Medical Officer of ResMed, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

In fact, there is data that supports a link between sexual dysfunction and obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of the disorder, happens when your breathing is physically blocked by collapsed muscles in your throat that constrict your airway while you sleep.

A 2018 study published by PLOS ONE found that 51% of participating men who were newly diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea also had erectile dysfunction, and confirmed a relationship between the two conditions.

Weight Gain

“Sleep apnea can also cause weight gain”, Nunez says.

While sleep deprivation won’t automatically cause you to gain weight, it can cause you to behave in ways that can increase the likelihood of putting on extra pounds.

One possible reason for this is hormonal. Research shows that, when you get less quality sleep due to sleep apnea, your body produces increased levels of ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that makes you feel hungry, so when you have higher than normal levels of it, you tend to eat more, which can lead to weight gain.

Increased Risk of Cancer

“Early research seems to indicate that obstructive sleep apnea may be a contributor to some cancers,” David Schwartz, DDS and President of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, people with moderate-to-severe sleep apnea have a significantly higher risk of mortality and cancer, compared to those who do not have the condition. The study also confirmed that sleep apnea is an independent risk factor for both the incidence of cancer and overall cancer mortality.  

“People are often surprised by this, because obstructive sleep apnea and cancer are not frequently connected. Researchers seem to believe that oxygen deprivation and airway blockage could cause tumors to grow,” Schwartz says. 

Depression or Anxiety

When you don’t get enough sleep, it is not just your body that struggles. Your mind is in danger as well. Some form of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. 

“Sleep is key to helping our brains and neurological system recharge. Untreated sleep apnea causes you to lose sleep, and we know that lack of proper sleep is associated with a variety of mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety,” Nunez says.

Proper sleep allows your brain to enter a “deep sleep” stage in which your body repairs itself while your brain waves slow down as it prepares for the next day. When your sleep is interrupted, your body and mind don’t reach this critical “deep sleep” stage, which can affect how your brain operates as well as your mental health

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.