In this article we’re going to address what sleep apnea does to the body: the biological effects it has in the short and long term, and how this can affect your psychological state or social relationships. Plus, we’re going to give you some tips on how to manage this common condition.
That’s how many suffer from a sleep disorder in the US today.
Among the sleep disorders, sleep apnea is one of the most common, affecting up to 7 percent of the population and also affecting their bodies.
Despite these high statistics, sleep apnea’s effects on the body are not discussed in many open forums, leaving its sufferers without the vital information they need to improve their condition and enjoy peaceful uninterrupted sleep.
What is Sleep Apnea?
When you are asleep, you breathe in air that flows from the mouth and nose into the lungs.
However in the case of sleep apnea, regular breathing is interrupted – stopping and starting throughout the night with potentially dangerous risks.
Sleep apnea is an umbrella term with numerous different specific types, the most common types of sleep apnea being:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Central sleep apnea
- Mixed or complex sleep apnea syndrome
Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type, is caused when the upper airway is blocked.
This reduces – or oftentimes completely halts – airflow.
The muscles in your mouth are contracted when you’re awake, to hold up the structure of the mouth and throat to allow for air to pass.
However, when you’re asleep, these muscles relax and the soft tissue can obstruct breathing.
The airway becomes narrow, causing loud snoring, or is blocked completely, jolting the individual awake gasping for breath.
Sleep apnea is a serious disorder and requires the right treatment.
Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send a signal to the muscles to take in air. This usually happens as a side effect of some other medical condition.
Mixed or complex sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that combines both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea, at different points in the night, or as a result of using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
What effect does sleep have on the body?
Before we get into sleep apnea’s effect on the body, we first have to address sleep’s effect on the body.
The average person sleeps for a third of their life. Sleep is essential for humans, and ensuring you get enough high quality sleep every night is one of the pillars of health and performance.
According to the CDC, not getting enough sleep regularly is linked to a number of serious medical conditions like obesity, heart disease, and depression.
When it comes to getting enough sleep, it’s not just the duration of your sleep, it’s also the quality.
The quality of your sleep is defined by:
- The amount of times you wake up in the night
- How long it takes you to fall back asleep if you wake up
- How quickly you fall asleep
- Asleep at least 85% of the time
If you sleep throughout the night easily, your body is able to move through the different stages of the sleep cycle – both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM)/deep sleep.
It’s safe to say that sleep is important, and should be a point of focus when striving for good health and mental wellbeing.
However, getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always that straight forward.
What effect does sleep apnea have on the body?
Sleep apnea is characterized by interrupted sleep due to apneic events during the night in which air is blocked.
On average, someone with sleep apnea will experience at least five events like this per hour of sleep.
Those with severe sleep apnea may experience 30 or more apneic events per hour of sleep.
As you may have guessed: this can greatly impact the quality of your sleep.
This has a short and long term effect on the body.
That is why sleep apnea-driven sleep deprivation is associated with a:
- Decline in cognitive function
- Higher risk of chronic disease
- Increased body weight and risk of obesity
- A spike in risk of mental health issues like depression
- Brain fog
- High blood pressure
- Hormonal imbalances
- Persistent tiredness
Let’s get into some more detail of these effects now.
Mental health issues
Sleep quality is closely linked to mental health. Studies show that sleep deprivation can exacerbate or trigger a decline in mental health, increasing your risk of certain conditions like depression or anxiety.
Unfortunately, it’s a double edged sword, with depression also increasing the risk of sleep disorders – emphasizing how closely they are linked.
A study found that 83 percent of depressed patients experienced at least one sleep disorder.
Sleep apnea, the most common sleep disorder, is likely going to affect your mental health if gone untreated, by preventing your brain from repairing and processing emotional information during sleep.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure is a common side effect of sleep apnea. This is because restricted breathing causes a decline in oxygen levels, prompting the brain to send a signal to increase blood flow to transport more oxygen to keep everything working properly. However, an elevated blood pressure has a knock-on effect: increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.
If you do have sleep apnea, regularly checking your blood pressure and implementing dietary interventions to reduce your blood pressure is vital.
Social and relationship issues
Sleep apnea increases your risk of snoring, which can not only affect your quality of sleep but also your partner’s. You both can be strongly affected by this. According to one study, sleep deprivation is the main cause of poor relationships between spouses, and is the main trigger for conflict.
Sleep apnea can also cause a reduced sexual desire. This may manifest as sexual dysfunction or an aversion to physical touch. A 2009 study found that 69 percent of men with obstructive sleep apnea experience regular erectile dysfunction. This is in part due to the effects of hormonal imbalance, which we’ll come onto; as well as the effect of lethargy from lack of sleep.
If gone untreated, sleep apnea can increase the levels of stress hormones, according to a 2017 study. As mentioned, it can also affect productions of sex hormones in both men and women. This may impact fertility – with female sleep apnea sufferers three times more likely to experience infertility.
Weakened immune system
Poor sleep quality is closely connected to suppressed immune function. This is because during the deep stages of sleep, your immune system works on overdrive: inflammatory cytokines are produced to help repair muscle damage, fortify innate and adaptive immunity, and fight off an infection. In the case of interrupted sleep, these key immune processes are inhibited.
Overweight and obesity
Overweight and obesity is one of the biggest risk factors for sleep apnea which create a vicious cycle.
Over eating and snacking is due to a lack of sleep while obesity worsens sleep apnea.
A study with nearly 28,000 participants found that those with the least sleep ate more total calories, ate more frequently and ate more so in the evening time. Another study found that if you’re obese, you’re twice as likely to have sleep apnea.
A timeline of effects
If sleep apnea isn’t treated, you’re likely to experience adverse side effects and cause long-lasting damage (both to your mental health and your body).
However, these effects are minimized if sleep apnea is treated.
It is impossible to say whether your sleep apnea is going to directly cause ‘X’ side effect in ‘X’ amount of time.
But if you take the steps to improve what you can change (diet, activity levels, sleep apnea management, natural remedies) – you are reducing the risk of this happening altogether.
Focus on what you can change today, and feel better tomorrow. Do it for your mind and body.