At first it is hard to imagine that a sleeping disorder could affect the circulatory system in a way that would cause high blood pressure, but actually the two are quite interrelated—and also potentially a very dangerous combination! High blood pressure can be a marker for the onset of an unhealthy heart, which can ultimately result in heart disease, which is one of the top killers of people in the United States today.
First, to understand how sleep apnea and high blood pressure may be interrelated, let’s take a look at both of these conditions and how they might connect with each other in various ways.
What is High Blood Pressure?
Hypertension, a fancy medical word for high blood pressure, is considered to be a long term medical condition when the blood pressure is consistently elevated. As the heart has to work to beat faster, the blood is forced against the walls of the blood vessels creating stress in the body. This condition over the long term can cause problems with the cardiovascular system, weakening the arteries and veins, and creating other health problems as well.
In order to receive a diagnosis of hypertension, a person will have blood pressure of more than 140 over 90 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). This reading refers to the pressure as the heart is pumping the blood throughout the body (systolic = 140 or above) and the pressure measured as the heart is refilling with blood while relaxed (diastolic = 90 or above). Normal blood pressure as defined by the American Heart Association (AHA) is 120 over 80.
The cause of high blood pressure may be related to ongoing stress and aging, or it could be linked to a variety of health conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes, adrenal problems, hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, and even pregnancy. Some of the risk factors for high blood pressure include:
- Obesity or being overweight
- Being over 60 year of age
- Physical inactivity
- Unhealthy diet including fatty, salty, or processed foods
- Smoking or other tobacco use
- Drinking alcohol
- Taking certain medications
- Family history of high blood pressure
What is Sleep Apnea?
A condition that is notable because of the stopping of breathing for periods of time during times of sleeping, sleep apnea is most often caused by a physical obstruction of the airways. This type is referred to as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). The cause of this condition may be due to a variety of reasons that can range from obesity to an enlarged tongue related to hypothyroidism. Sleep apnea can cause different inconvenient or life-altering symptoms including:
- Loud snoring
- Waking up gasping for air or choking occasionally
- Morning headaches
- Insomnia or restless sleep
- Daytime sleepiness, including during activities such as driving
- Mood changes, irritability, depression
- Decreased libido
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Waking up with dry or sore throat
People who are at a higher risk for sleep apnea may be obese, sleep on their backs, drink alcohol, smoke, have a large neck circumference, have a family history of the condition, or have a narrowed airway for any reason. If you believe that you have any symptoms or are at risk, contact a medical professional for an evaluation.
Sleep Apnea and High Blood Pressure
Since the two conditions of sleep apnea and high blood pressure often go hand in hand, researchers are often looking for clues as to why. One reason may be that people with obstructive sleep apnea are often overweight or even obese, which is often a reason for blood pressure to be increased.
Studies have suggested that up to 50% of people with high blood pressure also have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is particularly prevalent in cases of resistant blood pressure that does not respond to medication aimed at reducing hypertension. As uncontrolled high blood pressure can be the cause of other serious health complications, some medical professionals and researchers have learned that when sleep apnea is treated, there is often relief from the secondary high blood pressure as well.
Treatment for Sleep Apnea
The good news about sleep apnea is that there is treatment that is non-invasive that can bring most people back to a healthy lifestyle. One of the most common treatments for sleep apnea is the use of a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine that uses constant airflow to keep the airways open. This type of treatment is particularly useful as a way to assist obese people with sleep apnea in helping them to get restorative sleep so that they can lose weight by eating healthier foods and begin an exercise regimen.
Other healthy lifestyle choices such as quitting smoking, stopping the use of alcoholic drinks, and reducing certain medications prescribed by your doctor (such as pain killers), may also help you to minimize the effect of sleep apnea on your life. These healthy lifestyle choices can, in turn, promote a lowering of blood pressure and place a person at less of a risk of developing other dangerous conditions such as cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Because people who sleep flat on their backs are much more likely to have breathing episodes in relationship to sleep apnea, many people find they are helped by the use of an adjustable mattress or specialized sleep apnea pillow. Some sleep apnea pillows are made to be used in tandem with the masks attached to CPAP machines, designed to allow the user to sleep comfortably on the side without disturbing the placement of the breathing machine and the mask.
Sleep apnea and high blood pressure are not ideal conditions for your health. But the good news is that there is treatment for both—and sometimes treating one can result in reducing the symptoms and problems related to the other. The risk related to both high blood pressure and sleep apnea are high, but through the help of your physician and sleep specialist, you can work to find a healthy balance of lifestyle and treatment that is right for you.