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The Hidden Health Dangers of Sleep Apnea

Dr. Mercola

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Nov. 5, 2015

Sleep apnea typically refers to impaired breathing from an obstructed airway during sleep, which can have serious health consequences. It's a common problem, affecting more than half of all men and over one-quarter of women.1

It's also becoming more prevalent among children, largely due to lack of breast feeding and eating processed foods. Snoring is a related problem, caused by a restriction in your airway stemming from either your throat or nasal passageway.

The vibrations produced as the air struggles to get past your soft palate, uvula, tongue, tonsils, and/or muscles in the back of your throat causes the snore.

Fortunately, there are ways to address these kinds of breathing problems that don't necessarily involve resorting to a CPAP machine. Two treatment alternatives that offer a great deal of hope are oral myofunctional therapy and learning how to breathe properly while you're awake.

It's also important to address any breathing problems your child might have, as it can have serious repercussions for their health.

If you're pregnant, I urge you to consider breast feeding, and to pay careful attention to their diet during their early years as this may prevent such problems from occurring in the first place.

Sleep Apnea Increases Your Risk for Health Problems

There are five general types of sleep apnea, and any of them may provoke or exacerbate other health problems:

  1. Upper airway resistance syndrome or UARS is a sleep disorder characterized by airway resistance during sleep. The primary symptoms include daytime sleepiness and excessive fatigue.

    During sleep the muscles of the airway become relaxed. The relaxation of these muscles in turn reduces the diameter of the airway.

    Typically, the airway of a person with UARS is already restricted or reduced in size, and this natural relaxation reduces the airway further. Therefore, breathing becomes labored.

    It can be likened to breathing through a straw. UARS is often confused with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.

  2. Central apnea typically relates to your diaphragm and chest wall and an inability to properly pull air in. Central sleep apnea occurs because your brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control your breathing.

    Central sleep apnea may occur as a result of other conditions, such as heart failure and stroke. Sleeping at a high altitude also may cause central sleep apnea.

  3. Obstructive apnea relates to an obstruction of your airway that begins in your nose and ends in your lungs. The frequent collapse of the airway during sleep makes it difficult to breathe for periods lasting as long as 10 seconds.

    Those with a severe form of the disorder have at least 30 disruptions per hour. Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, arises from what is basically a mechanical problem.

    During sleep the patient's tongue falls back against his or her soft palate, and the soft palate and uvula fall back against the back of the throat, effectively closing the airway. Breathing usually resumes with a large GASP, SNORT, or BODY JERK.

    These movements interfere with sound sleep. They can also reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs and cause irregular heart rhythms.

  4. Mixed apnea is a combination of central apnea and obstructive apnea.
  5. Snoring is the first sign of sleep apnea. Snoring is the hoarse or harsh sound that occurs when your breathing is partially obstructed in some way while you are sleeping.

    Not only is snoring a nuisance to others, but 75 percent of people who snore regularly have OSA (when breathing is disrupted during sleep for short periods), which may increase the risk of developing heart disease.

Not only do these breathing disruptions interfere with sleep, leaving you unusually tired the next day, it also promotes poor health and chronic disease by:

  • Reducing the amount of oxygen in your blood, which can impair the function of internal organs and/or exacerbate other health conditions you may have
  • Slowing down or preventing critical detoxification of your brain tissue, as your brain's waste removal system, known as the glymphatic system, only operates during deep sleep
  • Disrupting your circadian rhythms, resulting in reduced melatonin production and the disruption of other body chemicals

A number of recent studies have highlighted the health risks associated with sleep apnea. For example, sleep apnea can:

Dramatically weaken your immune system Accelerate tumor growth Cause a pre-diabetic state, and promote diabetes Speed up memory loss and promote Alzheimer's disease2,3,4
Impair physical and mental performance, and decrease your problem solving ability Promote heart disease Promote gout Promote depression. It's also frequently misdiagnosed as depression,5 and the greater the severity of your sleep apnea, the greater your likelihood of feeling depressed

Recent research has also found that sleep apnea appears to be far more hazardous for women than men, and that children are increasingly at risk for sleep apnea and associated health problems.

Sleep Apnea May Be More Dangerous for Women Than Men

Previous studies have linked sleep apnea to heart disease in men, but the risk for women remained largely unknown. To assess whether this risk applies equally to both women and men, researchers measured the sleep quality of 737 men and 879 women.

None had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease at the outset of the study,6 which ran for 14 years. All were also tested for troponin T. This protein is a marker for heart damage, and elevated levels suggest you're at increased risk for heart disease.

As it turns out, sleep apnea appears to be far more hazardous to women than men. Even among women who didn't develop heart failure, sleep apnea was associated with damage in the heart that led to worse health outcomes.

As reported by The New York Times:7

"Obstructive sleep apnea was independently associated with increased troponin T, heart failure, and death in women, but not in men. And in women, but not men, sleep apnea was associated with an enlarged heart, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease."

Sleep Apnea Linked to Higher Risk of Gout

One of the most recently added side effects of sleep apnea is an increased risk of gout, a type of painful arthritis where the inflammation frequently targets the base of your big toe.

A recent British study8,9 found that people with sleep apnea were about 50 percent more likely to have gout than those who sleep well, and this held true regardless of sex, age, or weight.

According to the lead author: "Our findings call for future studies to evaluate the effect of treating sleep apnea on serum uric acid levels and the risk of gout."

Snoring and Sleep Apnea Raises Your Risk of Diabetes

One of the reasons why sleep deprivation is so damaging to your health is related to how it impairs your body's response to insulin. Impaired insulin sensitivity, also known as insulin resistance, is a precursor to type 2 diabetes as well as a risk factor in many other chronic diseases.

In fact, controlling insulin levels is one of the most powerful ways to reduce your risk of chronic disease, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. A number of studies have shown that lack of sleep can very quickly put you into a pre-diabetic state, and chronic sleep disturbance significantly raises your risk of type 2 diabetes.

One of the most recent long-term studies10 looking at this link found that seniors who snore or suffer with sleep apnea are 27 and 50 percent more likely, respectively, to develop type 2 diabetes compared to those who sleep well.

Eve Van Cauter, a sleep and metabolism researcher at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the study told Reuters11 that "getting good sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise to remain healthy during the aging process," and that "people must insist that their doctors include sleep hygiene and sleep health in their evaluation and recommendations."

Sleep Apnea in Children Linked to Lower Grades in School

As mentioned in the list above, sleep apnea also affects your mental functioning, and this can have dire ramifications for school-age children. According to recent research analysis of 16 published studies, kids with sleep apnea tend to struggle in school and perform worse in language arts, math, and science compared to those who do not have sleep or breathing problems. As noted by lead author Barbara Galland, a research associate professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand:

"Sleep apnea... may interfere with getting a good night's sleep, which may, in turn, contribute to children having a hard time paying attention and being less ready to learn and perform academically during the day. If a large sample of children without sleep-disordered breathing achieved an average 70 percent score for a test examination, a comparable sample of children of the same age with sleep-disordered breathing would be estimated to achieve an average score 11 percent below (59 percent)."

Did You Know? The Size and Shape of Your Mouth May Cause Breathing Problems Like Sleep Apnea