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Can Sleep Apnea Cause Other Health Problems?

a woman with ear nose and throat discomfort

Sleep apnea is a condition in which the airway becomes blocked while you sleep. Realizing it is low on oxygen, your brain sends signals to wake you, causing the airway to reopen and breathing to resume. 

Many people with mild sleep apnea don’t know that they have the condition. Their airways become blocked during the night, but they don’t return to full consciousness. Instead, they briefly come out of deep sleep, the airway resets and they fall back to sleep, never gaining full awareness of the episode. This sequence can occur many times in a single night and lead to health and sleep problems. 

Sleep apnea is a serious condition and has several knock-on effects on a patient’s health. Here are some of the consequences of untreated disease.

High blood pressure

Researchers believe that sleep apnea is a leading risk factor for high blood pressure. The inability to breathe during the night sends the cardiovascular system into shock, causing blood pressure to rise. One-off episodes are unlikely to do lasting damage. But recurring sleep apnea can lead to the development of chronic disease. 

Numbness and tingling

There are two types of sleep apnea. The first is obstructive, where the soft tissue at the back of the throat or the tongue blocks the airway, preventing air from moving through to the lungs. The second is neurological, where signals from the brain fail to reach the diaphragm and cause it to contract to fill the lungs. 

People with neurological sleep apnea have a disruption in the brain’s signaling ability, mainly when unconscious. This dysregulation can, however, manifest numbness and tingling in other parts of the body too. 

Abnormal heart rhythm

People with sleep apnea also appear to be at higher risk of abnormal heart rhythm. The disruption of signals to the lungs may also relate to those that the brain sends to the heart.

Furthermore, sleep apnea increases the production of stress hormones, which may, in turn, affect the regularity of a person’s heartbeat. 

Problems with insulin signaling

Sleep apnea may have adverse knock-on effects on sugar metabolism. 

The body uses insulin to shuttle glucose from the bloodstream into cells. You can think of the hormone as the key that unlocks the cellular door to allow the sugar molecules to enter the cells. 

People with sleep apnea, however, may develop insulin resistance. Here, there is still plenty of insulin floating around in the bloodstream, but something is gumming up the lock. When an insulin molecule arrives at the cell, the key fits, but it doesn’t turn, and it can’t open the cell door to allow the sugar to enter. 

If this happens all over the body, levels of sugar in the blood can rise, leading to kidneys and retina damage. 

Researchers associate sleep apnea with a range of conditions that fall under the general term metabolic syndrome. This concept encompasses a cluster of conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and insulin resistance or diabetes. Causality may operate both ways: sleep apnea may cause metabolic syndrome and vice versa. 

Issues with the respiratory system

Sleep apnea can take its toll on the respiratory system in any patient, but it is particularly severe for those with pre-existing lung conditions. 

Sleep apnea, for instance, can worsen asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). 

Thus, if you have only recently developed sleep apnea, you may find yourself short of breath more often than you usually would. 

It can lead to fatty liver disease

Fatty liver disease is a relatively modern disease. It occurs when the liver becomes engorged with fat, following a high-fat, high-sugar, high-meat diet. Over time, the body runs out of space to store excess energy, so it shuttles it to the liver for temporary storage. Eventually, the liver becomes dysfunctional, and can no longer carry out its role in the body, leading to hepatitis. 

Because sleep apnea increases the likelihood of metabolic syndrome, it also increases the likelihood of a fatty liver. All that excess sugar has to go somewhere, and usually, it is the liver. 

It can increase the risk of acid reflux

Acid reflux occurs when acids escape the stomach and move into the gullet. Unlike the stomach, it doesn’t have a thick, protective mucus lining, leading to pain and discomfort. Researchers believe that sleep apnea worsens existing acid reflux by taxing the diaphragm. The pain it causes can further disrupt sleep. 

If you think that you may have sleep apnea or know somebody who does, call ENT Specialists to learn more at 402-397-0670.