Whether we like it or not, up to one-third of our life is spent sleeping (or should be!) and our bodies gain innumerable benefits from getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. But when sleep is regularly interrupted or not restorative, a myriad of side effects can begin to develop. Missing just one or two nights of good sleep can cause minimal problems such as a tired-looking appearance or inability to concentrate. But lack of restorative sleep for an extended period of time can produce serious problems that can develop into life-altering health conditions.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
A sleep disorder that affects the way your body brings in oxygen, sleep apnea is a dangerous condition in which the body stops breathing at intervals during sleep. This may be caused either by a malfunction of the brain (Central Sleep Apnea—CSA) or a blockage of the airways (Obstructive Sleep Apnea—OSA). In both cases, the respiratory system is not adept at breathing as often as it should during sleep, reducing the amount of oxygen and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide.
Because the body is not able to breathe properly, sleep apnea can be the cause a variety of health problems and the symptoms are often related to lack of sleep.
Some of the common symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Loud snoring
- Fatigue and sleepiness during the day
- Inability to concentrate
- Mood changes, memory loss, irritability
- Falling asleep during activities such as driving
- Insomnia or wakefulness at night
- Occasionally waking up gasping for air or with a feeling of choking
- Headache upon waking
Some people are more likely to develop sleep apnea than others. Some of the risk factors for this sleeping disorder include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Family history of sleep apnea
- High blood pressure
- Blocked airways from conditions such as deviated septum or allergies
- Enlarged adenoids or tonsils (usually in children)
- Large neck circumference (17” in men, 16” in women)
- Being male (men are much more likely to develop sleep apnea)
- Being of an older age
- Opioid or other prescription drug use
- Drinking alcohol
Effects of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea affects the body and the brain, causing brain fog, concentration troubles, memory loss and irritability. This can cause family problems and interruptions to a healthy lifestyle. Sleep apnea may be the cause of somewhat “minor” lifestyle problems such as injuries at work due to sleepiness, minimized work performance, unhealthy weight gain, and even driving accidents due to poor attention span. More serious health conditions related to sleep apnea include stroke, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, or other problems.
One serious problem with the health related to sleep apnea is the release of stress hormones. When the oxygen level of the body drops and the person with sleep apnea awakens (even if not completely aware of it), a stress hormone called epinephrine or adrenaline is released. As this happens chronically, high blood pressure and other types of negative health problems can result from the increase of these stress hormones.
How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Your Heart?
The lack of sleep caused by sleep apnea, combined with the reduced amounts of oxygen and increased amounts of carbon dioxide, all work to take your health on a slow but seriously degrading journey. One of the major organs that is affected by sleep apnea is the heart. Obstructive sleep apnea is particularly likely to caused strain on the cardiovascular systems arteries, veins and capillaries (blood vessels). Research estimates that people with untreated sleep apnea can possibly raise the risk of heart disease by five times, and this is often related to untimely death.
High Blood Pressure
Untreated sleep apnea is commonly linked with high blood pressure (hypertension), which means that heart is working harder and may promote the onset of diseases such as stroke, heart failure, vision loss, chronic kidney disease, and more.
Heart Rhythm Problems
Problems with the heart’s rhythm may also occur in relationship to sleep apnea. The heartbeat may slow (bradycardia) or become irregular (atrial fibrillation). Patients with obstructive sleep apnea are four times as likely to appear with atrial fibrillation in comparison to those who do not have this sleep disorder.
Hardening of the Arteries
Coronary artery disease (hardening of the arteries) is also often associated with sleep apnea. In this condition, the arteries carrying oxygen and blood to the heart become narrowed, which makes the heart have to work much harder to get the body what it needs. Many heart attacks are associated with hardening of the arteries. Many experts believe that frequent times with low levels of oxygen can eventually cause damage to the blood vessels and the heart.
Does Sleep Apnea Cause Enlarged Heart?
Although not one of the most common symptoms, severe forms of sleep apnea that are left untreated may eventually cause so much strain on the heart that it becomes enlarged. Because the heart is a muscle, it tends to increase in size if it has to work harder. The additional need for oxygen and higher blood pressure can possibly put strain on the heart, resulting in an enlarged heart. When this happens, the heart becomes less efficient and more difficult to function in a healthy manner.
Left untreated, sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition affecting various parts of your health. The good news is that many non-invasive treatments exist to help your body breathe well at night and enjoy a normal, healthy lifestyle. If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, contact a health professional right away for diagnosis and treatment options.