Does Sleep Apnea Cause Health Problems?

December 15, 2023 · John Gallagher

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Health Problems?

At Mattress Warehouse, we get pretty excited about a good night’s sleep. Sleep offers several fundamental benefits for your physical health, from digestion and respiration to memory retention and mood. When you get the right amount of sleep each night, you prepare your body for the day ahead. Just as easily, a night of poor or partial sleep can leave you irritable, drowsy, and more susceptible to chronic pain.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that sleep is one of the best gifts you can give your body. So it’s concerning that more than 33% of people don’t get the sleep they need each night. For many people, sleep is more difficult to come by because of a sleep disorder. One such disorder, sleep apnea, can seriously compromise your quality of sleep and quality of life.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder where your breathing can stop, sometimes hundreds of times, each night while you sleep. An estimated 2-9% of Americans currently live with sleep apnea, though some experts believe as much as 90% of sleep apnea is undiagnosed.

There are three different types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: This is the most common form of sleep apnea, caused by a physical obstruction in your throat. For example, patients might develop sleep apnea when their tongue falls against their soft palate, making breathing more difficult after the soft palate then falls against the throat.
  • Central sleep apnea: A neurological form of sleep apnea where your brain doesn’t consistently send a signal to your body to breathe. 
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome: A combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea frequently interrupts your breathing patterns while you sleep. It creates periods called hypopneas, when your breathing reduces and your body doesn’t take in enough oxygen. Sleep apnea can also cause apneas — from the name of the disorder itself — when your breathing stops completely.

What Health Problems Can Sleep Apnea Cause — or Worsen?

Sleep apnea is known to cause additional health challenges. In many cases, these sleep health challenges grow worse if the underlying sleep apnea is not addressed. Health problems related to sleep apnea can include daytime fatigue, cardiovascular issues, disturbances to your metabolism, and undesired weight gain.

Daytime Fatigue

Sleep apnea plays a direct role in fragmenting the sleep cycle. If you have sleep apnea, you might notice repeated interruptions to your breathing patterns throughout the night. Whileyou might not fully wake up with each disruption, these constant pauses in your breathing can prevent you from getting the consistent sleep you need. They can also prevent you from reaching deep sleep, the restorative phase of sleep responsible for strengthening your memories and protecting your immune system.

As a result, someone with sleep apnea often wakes up feeling unrefreshed, leading to chronic daytime fatigue. Ongoing tiredness can quickly lead to more severe consequences. It can affect your mood, reduce your productivity, and force the need for naps during the day. Activities that demand your focus — like driving, typing, or operating any sort of machinery — also become much more dangerous with daytime fatigue.

Daytime fatigue can further lead into a cyclical relationship with oversleeping. When your body goes without the sleep it needs one day, you might attempt to compensate with an excessive amount of sleep the following day. This damaging cycle can lead your body into erratic sleep patterns and other health consequences.

Cardiovascular Issues

Sleep apnea, especially obstructive sleep apnea, poses a significant threat to your heart health. Each time you stop breathing during sleep, you reduce the amount of oxygen introduced into your bloodstream. This sudden drop in oxygen prompts the body to release stress hormones as a reactive measure, inadvertently increasing blood pressure and placing further stress on your heart. Cardiovascular issues can grow even worse if your breathing stops each night. Over time, this trend can lead to chronic conditions like hypertension, arrhythmias, and even more severe issues like heart disease or stroke.

Your heart is designed to work efficiently with consistent oxygen levels. The repetitive cycle of oxygen deprivation, recovery, then more deprivation puts more wear and tear on your cardiovascular tissues. This amount of use can increase your risk for related complications over time.

Disturbances to Your Metabolism

It’s also important to monitor the connection between sleep apnea and potential changes to your metabolism. Frequent interruptions in sleep patterns, and the oxygen deprivation that follows, can lead to imbalances in your hormones. These imbalances can lead to a variety of health challenges, including insulin resistance. Insulin resistance, where the body doesn't use insulin effectively, is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.

Unwanted Weight Gain

Sleep apnea's undesired weight gain. The previously-mentioned hormonal disruptions can also increase your appetite, making it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight. These same hormonal changes can also affect when you feel full while eating, further increasing your appetite and daily food consumption past healthy levels.

Weight gain is also a common sleep apnea side effect because of the prevailing daytime fatigue. Higher levels of fatigue can reduce your aptitude for physical activity. Without a drive to move around, go for a walk, or participate in a workout, you might not spend the calories necessary each day to shed weight. This can also lead to weight gain over time.

What Can I Do about Sleep Apnea?

First thing’s first: a blog is not the place to diagnose or address sleep apnea. If you feel you might be experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s time to visit a doctor or a sleep specialist you trust. They can provide more information about diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes.

Here are a few things doctors typically recommend to help people cope with sleep apnea:

  • Lifestyle changes: Doctors often recommend that people avoid caffeine and alcohol, quit smoking, pursue daily exercise, and consume a healthy diet that makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Machine: CPAP machines use a mask, typically worn over your nose or mouth, to deliver a continuous flow of oxygen to your lungs. This steady stream of oxygen also helps to keep your airways open, allowing you to achieve and sustain sleep.
  • Dental devices: As an alternative to CPAP machines, some people instead wear a dental device to keep their airways open. These devices are typically reserved for cases of only mild sleep apnea. You might also need to visit your dentist regularly, to ensure a proper fit in your mouth over time.
  • Medication: Often used in tandem with other treatment methods, some forms of medication are effective against sleep apnea. Medication can also help if you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety or other mental health conditions that further compromise your sleep.
  • Research: Some people find help for sleep apnea by participating in a sleep study, using a sleep tracking app, or by keeping a record of your sleep patterns in a journal.

Another way to fight back against sleep apnea is by improving the quality of your sleep conditions. This means avoiding electronics usage for 60 minutes before bed and creating a bedroom environment that’s best suited for sleep. Many people also find that setting a bedtime routine encourages better sleep.

The right sleep accessories are also key to a full night’s rest. This means using high-quality pillows and blankets that support your sleep habits.

It also means finding the mattress that best encourages your body into rest. In a world of aggressive sales and marketing, finding the right mattress can feel like a game no one has time to play. That’s why we created bedMATCH: the mattress world’s first sleep diagnostic program that analyzes your body and identifies mattress options best suited for you.

In five minutes, bedMATCH assesses your dimensions and sleep preferences, pairing you with mattresses that reflect the firmness, pressure, and angles you need to fall asleep and stay asleep all night.

Take our bedMATCH quiz for a massive step toward the sleep you deserve.