How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Body

What is the most serious outcome for untreated sleep apnea? A heart attack.

A heart attack occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle becomes blocked, starving the heart of oxygen.

The severe stress that OSA places on your heart, especially during REM sleep in the early morning hours, is a leading cause as to why heart attacks often occur between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m.

Heart Disease
Learn More

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Heart

If you have at least 5 apneas (a pause of 10 seconds or longer in breathing) per hour, every hour,
on average, you have a mild form of OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnea). But don't let the word "mild" fool you.

Your respiratory system is unable to release carbon dioxide through exhalation - or to take in necessary oxygen through inhalation. Without oxygen, cell activity slows down and affects all body functions. Most concerning in the moments surrounding apneas: heart function.

Your heart is a muscle; without adequate oxygen, it cannot work efficiently to pump blood throughout the body. Your heart may struggle to maintain a normal heart rate; this can lead to long- term problems caused by oxidative stress on your heart.

Your blood pressure may rise. This is due to a chemically-induced stress response caused by reduced blood oxygen levels; the nervous system sends out stress hormones to force an increase in heart rate, as well as other hormones that cause inflammation and elevations in blood sugar.

High blood pressure and oxidative stress of the heart are both associated with stroke and heart disease. If you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, your cardiac symptoms may worsen if left untreated.

Sleep apnea treatment can make a difference! You may see your blood pressure drop. You may be able to cut back on blood pressure medications. But never stop or change your dose without first consulting with your physician.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Health: Weight Gain

Extra pounds raise your chances of getting sleep apnea, and your OSA also makes it more difficult to slim down.

When overweight, fatty deposits in your neck may 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 are exhausted, you might not be able to efficiently turn your food intake into energy, leading to weight gain.

The good news? Treatment for OSA can make you feel better, when you are able to get a good night’s sleep! You will have more energy, which can help you lose weight. And healthy weight levels can lead to a milder form of sleep apnea.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Health: Diabetes

Sleep apnea is related to glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, both factors in type 2 diabetes. Not getting enough shut-eye can keep your body from using insulin properly, which leads to diabetes. Using CPAP to treat your sleep apnea can improve insulin sensitivity.

Obesity raises your risk for both OSA and diabetes. Untreated sleep apnea increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Sleep apnea is common among people with diabetes; as much as 80% or more of diabetics may have OSA.

The correlation between these health risks may be minimized by sleep apnea treatment.

Atrial Fibrillation

Sometimes referred to as “AFib,” atrial fibrillation is a form of abnormal and irregular heart rhythm in which your heartbeat is fast and fluttering.

One of the side effects of untreated OSA is hypoxemia: lower-than-healthy levels of blood oxygen in your bloodstream. This leads to, among other things, the release of stress hormones and systemic inflammation (related to oxidative stress) which may lead to atrial fibrillation.

Atrial Fibrillation

Sometimes referred to as “A Fib,” atrial fibrillation is a form of abnormal and irregular heart rhythm which your heartbeat is fast and fluttering.

One of the side effects of untreated OSA is hypoxemia: lower-than-healthy levels of blood oxygen in your bloodstream. This leads to, among other things, the release of stress hormones and systemic inflammation (related to oxidative stress) which may lead to atrial fibrillation.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Heart: Enlarged Heart (Cardiomyopathy)

During repeated episodes of sleep apnea, areas of your heart may lose their tone or the heart walls may thicken.

These are outcomes of your overstressed heart, attempting to maintain normal blood flow and oxygen levels in the bloodstream during these non-breathing pauses. But it’ s not all bad news. Treating your OSA now can help prevent any of these cardiovascular problems from ever developing or worsening.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Heart: Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

When we sleep, our blood pressure should remain slightly lower than when we are awake.

However, untreated sleep apnea can lead to the development of hypertension (or high blood pressure). Hypertension causes damage to your artery walls and plaque form on your artery walls. When the plaque breaks off, blood cells may clump in these areas, potentially clogging your arteries. Better known as "hardening of the arteries" (atherosclerosis), CAD can lead to stroke or heart attack.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Neurological Function

Storing experiences throughout the day, so that those same experiences can be accessed later as memories, is a vital link in the memory-creating process that occurs during sleep. When your sleep is disrupted night after night, you will suffer from impaired memory formation and forgetfulness.

Have you heard your partner struggling for breath at night, often resulting in loud snoring or snorting noises as they gasp for breath? During an apnea event, you or your loved one actually stops breathing, thereby starving the brain of oxygen. This dress, paired with chronic fatigue, can cause physical, measurable brain damage. Furthermore, multiple studies have discovered a decrease in both gray and white matter in the brains of patients with OSA.

You can reverse the neurological damage of OSA with CPAP therapy!

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a pair of studies evaluated the effects of CPAP therapy on several subjects who had shown significant damage to their brain matter. After a year of CPAP treatment, the patients’ white matter was nearly completely restored, while their gray matter saw substantial improvement after only three months of treatment.

Get Started