11 Ways Sleep Apnea Can Hurt Your Health

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on June 06, 2021

Snoring can make for a bad night’s sleep, for you and your bed mate. But if it happens because you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), it’s a sign of a bigger problem.

The condition raises your risk for other health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes. It can even make you more dangerous on the road. But when you treat sleep apnea, you can ease or even cure some of these issues.

Here are 11 health problems you might face if you have OSA:

1. High blood pressure. If you already have it, sleep apnea can make it worse. When you wake up often during the night, your body gets stressed. That makes your hormone systems go into overdrive, which boosts your blood pressure levels. Also, the level of oxygen in your blood drops when you can’t breathe well, which may add to the problem.

Treatment can make a difference, though. Some people with high BP who get help for sleep apnea will see their blood pressure improve. Their doctors may be able to cut back on their BP medications. (But you shouldn’t stop or change your dose without talking to your doctor first.)

2. Heart disease. People with OSA are more likely to have heart attacks.

The cause may be low oxygen. Strokes and atrial fibrillation -- a fast, fluttering heartbeat -- are also linked with the condition.

Sleep apnea disrupts how your body takes in oxygen, which makes it hard for your brain to control how blood flows in your arteries and the brain itself.

3. Type 2 diabetes. Sleep apnea is common among people with this condition -- 80% or more of them may have OSA.

Obesity raises a person’s risk for both disorders. Although studies haven’t shown a cause-and-effect link between sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes, not getting enough shut-eye can keep your body from using insulin properly, which leads to diabetes.

4. Weight gain. Extra pounds raise your chances of getting sleep apnea, and the condition also makes it harder to slim down.

When you’re overweight, you can have fatty deposits in your neck that block breathing at night. On the flip side, sleep apnea can make your body release more of the hormone ghrelin, which makes you crave carbs and sweets. And when you're tired all the time, you might not be able to turn the food you eat into energy as efficiently, which can lead to weight gain.

The good news? Treatment for OSA can make you feel better, with more energy for exercise and other activities. This can help you lose weight, which can help your sleep apnea.

5. Metabolic syndrome. This is a group of health conditions that has been linked with OSA. Metabolic syndrome means you have at least three of these conditions:

Metabolic syndrome can make you more likely to get heart disease, diabetes, or stroke, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about treatment and healthy lifestyle changes.

6. Adult asthma. Science hasn’t proven a link to OSA, but people who get sleep apnea treatment may find they have fewer asthma attacks.

7. Acid reflux. There’s no proof that sleep apnea causes this kind of heartburn, but many people say it’s a problem. Treating reflux seems to improve apnea symptoms for some people, and treating OSA helps symptoms of reflux, sleep doctors say.

8. Daytime sleepiness. The sun’s up, yet you feel tired. That’s a common symptom of OSA. It can take a toll on everything from your mood to how clearly you think. Getting treatment for sleep apnea can improve your shut-eye and help you feel less fatigued during the day.

9. Car accidents. When you feel groggy, you raise your risk of falling asleep at the wheel. People with sleep apnea are up to five times more likely than normal sleepers to have traffic accidents.

10. Memory loss. Some older people have more memory slips or thinking problems than other folks their age. Doctors call this mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The symptoms aren’t as severe as dementia, and not everyone with MCI goes on to get dementia. Research suggests that memory slips from MCI might show up sooner when someone has a “sleep-disordered breathing” condition like obstructive sleep apnea. Getting treatment for OSA might delay memory troubles from getting worse, though.

11. Depression. Poor sleep might make you more likely to get depressed. And depression may raise your chances of getting worse shut-eye. If you have OSA and you’ve been feeling sad for a while, talk to your doctor. They can give you treatments that lift your mood and improve your ZZZs.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea

All the health problems linked to the condition can sound scary, but there are lots of ways to treat it.

Your doctor may recommend a machine called CPAP, short for continuous positive airway pressure. The machine, with a mask attached by a hose, can help you breathe better at night and get the rest you need. It can take some getting used to, but people who use it when they sleep feel better and are healthier.

There are other treatments, too, such as mouth appliances, nerve stimulators to keep your airways open, and several types of surgery. Talk to your doctor about which option is most likely to help you feel better and avoid other health problems.

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