Sleep Apnea and Autoimmune Diseases: Is There a Link?

Autoimmune diseases are conditions where the body’s immune system mistakes healthy tissue for invaders like viruses or germs. Sleep apnea is not an autoimmune disease. However, some studies have shown that those with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are at a greater risk of developing autoimmune diseases.1

Research from the University of Georgia published in late 2020 confirms this link and might give some answers to those who suffer from both OSA and autoimmune disease.1

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

The most common form of sleep apnea is known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In OSA, the airways collapse during sleep. Blockage of the airway leads to the classic snoring, choking, and pausing in breathing common with OSA. When the airways are blocked, oxygen from the lungs cannot get to the cells and organs in the body. The result is low blood oxygen levels, known as hypoxemia.2

Low blood oxygen can lead to many problems in the body, including serious issues with the brain, heart, and lungs. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, untreated sleep apnea increases the risk of dying from heart disease by 5 times.3

What does the research say?

Previous studies have shown that OSA increases the risk for autoimmune disease. Research conducted in late 2020 by the University of Georgia looked at specific proteins known as cytokines. Cytokines are proteins that play a role in signaling cells in the immune response. Cytokines have also been linked to autoimmune disease.1

Researchers looked at 4 different cytokines in 3 groups of adult study participants:1

  • Those with untreated OSA
  • Those with OSA currently receiving treatment
  • Those without OSA

Their research showed abnormal levels of cytokines in those with untreated OSA. These findings suggest that untreated OSA, poor sleep quality, and low blood oxygen levels may impact cytokine levels. Because cytokines are involved in autoimmune diseases, these findings suggest why OSA can be linked to some autoimmune diseases.1

OSA and other conditions

In addition to autoimmune diseases, researchers are studying the link between OSA and other conditions. These conditions include:3-5

  • Cardiovascular disease – Heart and vessel disease
  • Neurodegenerative disorders – Brain and nerve diseases that lead to progressive damage or death of brain or nerve cells
  • Renal disease – Damage or disease of the kidneys

What does this research mean to you?

This research confirms that untreated OSA can lead to severe health problems. Low blood oxygen levels do not just lead to a restless night and impaired sleep. Low oxygen levels, especially when left untreated, can affect your body’s immune system. The result can be additional disease and suffering.1,3

This new research could mean breakthroughs in treatments for OSA or certain autoimmune diseases.

If you suspect you might have OSA and have not been diagnosed, talk to your doctor about the symptoms you are having. If you have OSA and are being treated, do not change or stop your treatment – always speak to your doctor about the best treatment options for you. Your health and your immunity depend on the proper management of OSA.

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