Your Whole Body Needs You to Treat Your Sleep Apnea
Last updated: April 2023
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) describes the mechanical failure of the upper airway to allow adequate oxygen into your lungs during sleep. Without adequate oxygen during sleep, you can suffer from long periods of low blood oxygen. This is known as hypoxia.
In a hypoxic state, your body launches and maintains a body-wide inflammatory response. Over time, inflammation creates a domino effect of health problems across the body’s many systems.
When you don’t treat your sleep apnea
Let’s take a closer look at how untreated OSA affects the cardiovascular, endocrine, neurological, respiratory, reproductive, and urinary systems.
OSA impacts your whole body, not just your sleep. Treating OSA keeps your body’s systems in healthy balance. Chronic health problems caused by OSA could be harder to reverse if you avoid treating your sleep apnea.
A nighttime of hypoxia leads to oxidative stress. This describes an imbalance in toxins and antioxidants, with the toxins getting the upper hand. The heart muscle, in particular, suffers from oxidative stress. Most commonly, that will show up as high blood pressure.
Untreated high blood pressure is also a major risk factor for stroke.1
Other cardiovascular hazards caused by untreated OSA include:
- Heart attack
- Atrial fibrillation
- Congestive heart failure
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- Chronic vascular disease
Obesity is perhaps the most common endocrine condition linked to OSA. However, type 2 diabetes mellitus has a complex relationship to untreated sleep apnea.
When hypoxia continues, the body responds by flooding the bloodstream with stress hormones such as adrenaline. This leads to perpetually higher-than-usual levels of adrenaline over several hours every night. Eventually, the blood chemistry shifts toward situations you’ve probably heard of: insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. Both contribute to the development of diabetes.
Polycystic ovary disease relates to the higher insulin resistance in women with untreated OSA.2
Middle-aged adults with OSA risk developing acromegaly. This is a condition of too much growth hormone in the bloodstream. It causes excessive growth in the soft tissues in the upper airway.3
The body’s fluids naturally redistribute across the body while you lie down to sleep. Chronic edema (swelling) may occur due to chemical imbalances related to OSA. Meanwhile, too much fluid plumps the soft tissues in the neck, causing the mechanical collapse of the airway (apneas). It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by untreated OSA.4
Finally, hypothyroidism is linked to OSA.5
Hypoxia during sleep can damage certain brain structures. This leads to the same short-term memory loss and daytime confusion that plagues chronic alcoholics and those with Alzheimer’s disease.6
Hypoxia (called hypoxemia when it is ongoing) may also lead to damage of the brain’s white and gray matter.6
The result? Measurable impairment in thinking (cognition), mood, and alertness.
Emotional imbalances persist as an OSA side effect. Irritability, secondary depression and the worsening of preexisting mood disorders commonly result from untreated OSA.
Smokers with OSA may have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD merges emphysema with chronic bronchitis. It’s made much worse by untreated OSA.7
Pulmonary hypertension describes hypoxia which impacts heart functions related to pumping blood in a stress response to low levels of blood oxygen.
OSA may also worsen preexisting asthma.8
Women with untreated OSA may suffer from impaired ovarian function linked to infertility.9
Pregnant women may develop OSA situationally. That is, they can have OSA due to the normal swelling that comes with pregnancy. This also means their OSA can be temporary, disappearing once the pregnancy weight is lost. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.
Meanwhile, men with untreated OSA may experience:10
- “Low T” or reductions in testosterone
- Low sperm counts
For some, untreated OSA increases the frequency of overnight urination. This isn’t due to overactive bladder, but to the stress response that corresponds with the frequent awakenings caused by episodes of OSA. Several times a night means sleep fragmentation prevails.
These people awakened by apneas may not actually have full bladders. Instead, their body chemistry is forced into a state of wakefulness that automatically signals them to void the bladder. It’s why frequent nighttime bathroom breaks may be a sign of hidden OSA.
Sleep apnea also occurs at a significantly higher rate in people with chronic kidney disease.11
The bottom line
If you’ve been diagnosed with OSA, please take your doctor’s referrals seriously and seek out treatment. Often, treating OSA can prevent many of these conditions from developing. Or, if they’re preexisting, treating OSA can at least give you some relief from these other conditions.
You can find numerous treatments available for OSA. If one doesn't work for you, try another. Your body and your loved ones will thank you later! And, as many people who treat their OSA will attest, you’ll feel better and live longer.
Mental Health May Question: On an average day, how would you rate your level of anxiety related to sleep apnea?
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