Is Sleep Apnea Dangerous?
Of the various forms of sleep disorders that people experience, sleep apnea is one of the most prominent of all. Sleep apnea is an increasingly severe sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. The two main symptoms are loud snoring and a feeling of tiredness even after a long night’s sleep.
Sleep apnoea is divided into three main categories:
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): This is the most common form of sleep apnea. In OSA, the muscles in the throat relax and block the air passage. This, in turn, leads to loud snoring and shortened breathing.
- Central Sleep Apnea (CSA): In this sleep-related breathing disorder, the brain fails to send sufficient signals to the muscles that control breathing, which also leads to irregular and shortened breathing. In some instances, breathing stops for a short period before resuming.
- Complex Sleep Apnea (CompSAS): This form of sleep apnea is caused by a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea. As it occurs in patients with OSA during initial treatment with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device, it is also known as treatment-related central sleep apnea.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea has various symptoms. The most common of these is increasingly loud snoring, which is caused by blocked airways during sleep. While snoring may be the most disturbing symptom for your bedmate, for someone who suffers from sleep apnea, it is instead the episodes of stopped breathing during sleep and the abruptly waking up accompanied by gasping or choking. If you have sleep apnea, you may experience as many as 30 interruptions in breathing per hour while being asleep.
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You will also notice that you often wake up with an extremely dry mouth. This is because, when the airways are blocked, your body reflexively tries to get more air through mouth breathing. The process of trying to breathe through the mouth, in turn, leaves your mouth very dry when you wake from your sleep.
More so, you could also begin experiencing more restless sleep or even the difficulty of staying asleep, also known as insomnia. As a consequence, you feel less energized and sleepy during the day and may experience problems concentrating. This condition may even carry risks, especially when driving a car.
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Also, sleep apnea can lead to increased mood changes and a reduced interest in sex. People with sleep apnea often feel grumpy. This grumpiness is supported by the extreme challenge of staying awake or active during the day.
When can sleep apnea be dangerous?
Sleep apnea and daytime fatigue
In most cases, sleep apnea leads to intense daytime fatigue. Daytime fatigue can cause a severe impairment of the affected person’s quality of life and may even lead to uncontrollable falling asleep during the day.
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And precisely, this is one of the biggest risks of sleep apnea: Due to the significantly increased occurrence of microsleep, it poses a considerable danger to patients, especially in road traffic.
Sleep apnea and stroke
Sleep apnea is a risk factor for stroke. It can be an aftereffect of stroke, but it can also be a significant contributing factor in an initial or recurrent stroke. Sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder that causes low oxygen levels and high blood pressure, both of which can increase the risk of a stroke.
Sleep apnea and hypertension
A growing number of studies link high blood pressure with sleep apnea. In people with hypertension, more than 70% have sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea and cardiovascular conditions
Sleep apnea is also linked to several heart diseases, including atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat, Bradycardia (slow heartbeat), and even heart failure.
Sleep apnea and anxiety and depression
When left without any form of treatment, sleep apnea can lead to a concerning case for your mental health. People with sleep apnea sometimes experience increased anxiety, which can take the form of both generalized uneasiness and night-time panic attacks.
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The reason for this is that your body remains in a permanent state of fight-or-flight due to interrupted breathing. Your nervous system reacts to this increased stress in the form of heavy sweating, palpitations, or a feeling of nervousness. This body reaction can even last into the day.
In some cases, sleep apnea causes depression. Depression is a state in which you constantly feel sad, guilty, worthless, or pessimistic. You simply don’t derive joy from the things that made you happy before. You may also experience difficulties in decision making and concentration. And in severe cases, you might get suicidal thoughts, and sadly some people end up acting on such thoughts.
What are the effects of sleep apnea on your overall health?
Sleep apnea and weight gain
Sleep apnea can cause several other intense and severe health conditions. One example is the effect on body weight. Sleep apnea often leads to weight gain because, due to insufficient restless sleep, the body is always tired. In that situation, you just don’t feel the need to exercise.
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Even in situations where you decide to do a few workouts, you will find it tiring rather than stimulating. As a consequence, you gain more weight, which then can also worsen sleep apnea symptoms. When you gain weight, you gain weight everywhere – including the neck that can further narrow the airways when lying down.
Sleep apnea and headaches and migraines
Another condition associated with sleep apnea is severe headaches in the morning or even migraines. In fact, it is estimated that around half of people who wake up with headaches have sleep apnea.
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The reason for the headaches or migraines is that due to the repeated breathing stops at night, the oxygen levels in the bloodstream decrease. At the same time, the waste product carbon dioxide increases. This condition has a negative effect on the brain and can lead to sleep apnea headaches or migraines.
Sleep apnea and memory loss
Also important, sleep apnea poses a threat of memory loss to individuals suffering from it. As sleep apnea causes a reduced supply of oxygen to the brain, the mammillary bodies in the brain, which are responsible for memory retention, tend to wear off over time. They simply fail to perform up to their task of memory recollection. As a consequence, you may develop a short-term memory or even a memory loss as a result of sleep apnea.
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Sleep apnea and vertigo
When you have sleep apnea, there is also a condition where you experience a sudden attack of dizziness called vertigo. It is essential to mention that vertigo can be caused by many possible causes, of which sleep apnea is only one.
The connection between vertigo and sleep apnea is that you may feel periodically dizzy as a result of difficulties in trying to get some sleep. This causes your body to lose its natural balance. As a result, you may feel like you are swaying or spinning or that the world around you is spinning.
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In some cases, it can also lead to nausea, severe headaches, and sweating. While these symptoms are usually nothing to worry about, dizziness can cause dangerous falls or accidents.
Sleep apnea and diabetes
Anyone suffering from sleep apnea should be wary of diabetes and vice versa because these two conditions work hand in hand. In fact, it is estimated that people with type 2 diabetes have a 50-50 chance of developing sleep apnea. Conversely, obstructive sleep apnea also appears to increase the risk of diabetes.
There are several reasons why these two diseases so often occur together. First, obesity is a significant risk factor for both obstructive sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes.
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However, it is now known that sleep apnoea also promotes the development of type 2 diabetes, regardless of body weight. The nightly breathing stops and wake-up reactions put the body and brain under enormous stress. And the usual response to stressful situations is an increased release of stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol).
These hormones have the task of ramping up our fight-or-flight response; they make our blood pressure shoot up, release sugar reserves from the liver and simultaneously inhibit the effect of the body’s own insulin.
These increased stress levels are the reason why people suffering from sleep apnoea have a higher risk of developing diabetes. This is even the case with mild obstructive sleep apnea. Studies have shown that even habitual snoring more than doubles the risk of developing type 2 diabetes over ten years, regardless of whether the snorer is overweight or not.
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It is now known that the degree and frequency of nocturnal oxygen desaturation and the frequency of wake-ups play a vital role in the development of diabetes in sleep apnoea. Also, lack of sleep has been shown to make people more susceptible to type 2 diabetes. Thus, unrestful sleep in people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea may well contribute to an increased risk of diabetes.
Sleep apnea and insomnia
It is not always clear whether insomnia triggers or amplifies OSA or whether OSA triggers or amplifies insomnia. However, the researchers agree that one of the two conditions can open the door to the other. The fact is that there is a significantly higher incidence of OSA in persons with insomnia and of insomnia in people with OSA than in the general population. Their combined occurrence, also known as “complex insomnia,” “sleep disorder plus (SDB-plus)” or “sleep apnea-related insomnia,” seems even to be increasing.
So why can OSA affect insomnia, and why can insomnia affect OSA? One reason could be the increasing fragmentation of sleep that occurs in both OSA and insomnia. There is evidence that sleep fragmentation increases the tendency of the throat muscles to collapse, leading to upper airway obstruction and the breathing stops known from OSA. The person thus struggles for air during sleep, which increases the stress level and causes the person to wake up. And in this state, it is extremely difficult to fall asleep again.
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Also, sleep apnea can cause people to wake up more often at night with the urge to go to the bathroom. As a consequence, you don’t sleep as long as you actually would need to.
Another factor is that both insomnia and OSA worsen the cardiovascular risk profile. So people with both diseases are particularly at risk and should seek adequate treatment.
What are the treatments for sleep apnea?
Now, it is important to note that despite all the problems presented by OSA, it can be cured or made to go away. As such, specific changes in lifestyle can be effective in getting rid of this sleeping disorder.
Here are some simple lifestyle changes that can bring about a stop to sleep apnea.
- Engaging in weight loss exercises
- Desisting from excessive alcohol and various medications like sleeping pills
- Developing a habit of sleeping on your sides and not on your back
- Avoidance of smoking
In situations where the application of changes in lifestyle does not take effect, the following therapies may help to treat sleep apnea.
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)
Continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) is the most common treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea.
This involves the use of a machine that can supply the right amount of air pressure, which is a little stronger than the surrounding air pressure. This functions to keep the passages of your airway open which prevents the issue of loud snoring.
But there are more benefits: CPAP reduces basically all of the above-mentioned risks associated with sleep apnea.
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Use of Oral Appliances
This presents you with an easier option to keep your airway passage adequately open. They are patterned in such a way that by holding your jaw in a forward position, sleep apnea and snoring are relieved by leaving your throat open and allowing free unobstructed passage of air.
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This is normally the last resort after the other treatment methods have proven to be futile. However, a minimum of two to three months of trying other methods is advised before moving to the option of undergoing surgery. Some of the surgical options include.
- Removal of fatty tissues that block the throat
- Shrinking of the tissues found behind the throat
- Repositioning of the jaw
- Implanting of plastic rods
- Stimulation of the hypoglossal nerve
- Tracheotomy (creation of a new airway passage)
Sleep apnea is one of the major sleep disorders that can throw the lives of those affected into turmoil. As it affects the body in various ways, it can cause several other adverse health conditions that are not to be taken lightly.
However, OSA is a very well researched disease that is also very well treatable. There are also many things that the person with OSA can do themselves. In many cases, specific lifestyle changes, if strictly followed, can put an end to this sleep disorder. The most important thing is to take the symptoms of sleep apnea seriously and not delay the treatment for long.
So if you think that you might have sleep apnea, take action immediately and talk to your doctor.