Some people find it difficult to understand how a problem with loud snoring and/or breathing during sleep could ultimately result in problems with your cardiovascular system. Heart arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, be directly related to the inability to get enough oxygen to the brain, which can easily be linked to sleep apnea.
During sleep apnea, the body is not able to breathe appropriately and the respiratory system ends up stopping and starting irregularly. This may be caused by physical blockage to the airways (Obstructive Sleep Apnea—OSA), or by the brain malfunctioning so that it does not appropriately signal the breathing muscles to act (Central Sleep Apnea—CSA). In any case, the result is a lack of oxygen and an increase in carbon dioxide all throughout the times while the body is sleeping.
When the body is lacking enough oxygen to feed the brain, the brain signals for the heart to “work harder” to pass the oxygen through the circulatory system throughout the body. When this happens, the heart ends up trying to beat faster and faster in order to pump the blood into the body, often resulting in hypertension, also called high blood pressure. This overworking of the heart can be the cause of various heart problems that can result in dangerous consequences if left untreated.
Sleep Apnea and Heart Problems
Because heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, recognizing its association with sleep apnea could be a critical part of avoiding it. People who have sleep apnea may be at up to 5x higher risk of dying from heart problems when compared to people without sleep conditions.
Here are some of the connections between these heart problems and sleep apnea:
Cardiac Arrhythmia or Dysrhythmia
Both of these are terms for problems with the heart beating out of rhythm. Studies in Canada show that people who wake up many times during the night with sleep apnea have a drop in oxygen levels seem to be much more likely to develop atrial fibrillation, which is a quivering heartbeat that can lead to stroke, blood clots, heart failure and other complications. One study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology showed that the risk of having an abnormal heartbeat after a sleep apnea episode were 18 times higher when compared with normal sleep breathing.
Otherwise known as high blood pressure, this is caused by the dropping oxygen levels and the brain’s release of the stress hormone called adrenaline (or epinephrine). Although oxygen levels may return to normal during waking hours, the blood pressure often continues pumping at faster rates. This puts a strain on the heart over time.
A condition in which the heart is not able to pump enough blood to the body to meet its needs, heart failure is often due to weakening or stiffening of the muscle and cardiovascular system.
Under-Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea
Because this connection between sleep apnea and developing heart problems is not obvious, people often assume that sleep apnea is not a serious problem and leaves many people to believe that they don’t really need a diagnosis. In fact, some experts believe that up to 80% of people with sleep apnea are not aware that they even have it.
Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
- Loud snoring
- High blood pressure
- Waking up often to urinate
- Headaches after sleeping
- Occasionally waking up with a sensation of gasping or choking
- Daytime sleepiness, even during activity such as driving
- Insomnia, inability to sleep well, or restless sleep
- Weight gain
- Mood changes, irritability, loss of libido
- Fatigue and lethargy during the day
- Waking up with very dry mouth or sore throat
- Decreased libido
If you believe that you might have sleep apnea and are exhibiting any of the above symptoms, talk to your doctor right away. A sleep study can help your doctor get clarity on a diagnosis and needed treatment.
Treatments for Sleep Apnea and Heart Problems
The good news for people suffering from sleep apnea is that they don’t have to continue to let the condition negatively affect their health. Often, diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea can reduce or completely eliminate some of the other health problems associated with it, including diabetes, heart problems, weight gain, metabolic disorder, and other issues.
Treatment for people with sleep apnea that causes irregular heartbeats and other problems is most commonly done through breathing therapy with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine connects to the nose or mouth through a tube that forces air into the breathing passages to keep them open when they might normally close during sleep. Some people do not prefer wearing this type of machine at night while they sleep, but it is a small compromise when considering that this could help a person to have a healthy heart and live a longer life.
Some people with milder forms of sleep apnea may benefit from positional therapy, meaning that they use special pillows or mattresses to allow them to sleep on their sides or stomachs instead of on their backs. For people with OSA, this change in sleeping position can prevent gravity from forcing the airway closed and causing breathing episodes to occur.
Dental appliances may also be an effective way to promote healthy breathing during sleep, especially if the sleep apnea is related to a malformation of the jaw or enlarged tongue (sometimes caused by thyroid problems). Most people need a specially qualified sleep apnea dentist to fit this kind of appliance specifically to their individual needs.
Weight Loss and Healthy Lifestyle
Another common option that helps many people with mild sleep apnea is weight loss. However, because of the problems with sleeping, losing weight with active sleep apnea can be very difficult. Some people find that use of a CPAP machine while actively trying to lose weight can reduce incidences so that ultimately the machine is no longer needed.
Of course, if you have sleep apnea and heart problems your doctor should keep you under close monitoring to make sure that you do not have arrhythmias or hypertension and are not at risk for blood clots, stroke, heart disease, and other problems. Your doctor will help you determine the best options for handling your sleep apnea as well as keeping your whole body healthy. Sleep apnea is a condition that should be taken seriously, but you don’t have to be satisfied with its ability to cause irregular heartbeats. And you don’t have to let it ruin your life!