Sleep Apnea and Mental Health

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2023

As we continue to learn more about sleep apnea and mental health disorders, researchers have discovered just how closely the 2 can be connected. Sleep apnea disrupts your sleep, leaving you tired during the day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that around one-third of adults in the United States sleep less than 7 hours a night. And around 1 in 5 US adults live with a mental health condition, which can include:1

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder

How are sleep apnea and mental health connected?

It is well known that living with sleep apnea raises your chances of developing illnesses that affect your physical health, like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. But this risk goes beyond your physical well-being to include your mental health.2

Sleep apnea and certain mental health conditions have a strong bidirectional relationship – meaning 1 impacts the other. The 2 illnesses may even have similar symptoms, such as:2

  • Sleepiness during the day
  • Low energy levels and motivation
  • Trouble concentrating and thinking (poor cognitive function)
  • Lower sex drive
  • Waking up in the middle of the night

For example, these symptoms may look like depression. But they may actually be caused by undiagnosed sleep apnea.2

Sleep apnea increases your risk of depression and anxiety. Many studies have shown, for example, that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea. PTSD symptoms also tend to get better with treatment for sleep apnea.2

The CDC looked at the link between poor sleep and mental health disorders. Researchers analyzed data from a survey of more than 400,000 adults. The survey asked participants about the number of hours they sleep and the state of their mental health. Researchers found that people who slept poorly had a 3 times higher risk of mental distress than those who got sufficient sleep.1

A separate study, specifically related to sleep apnea, showed similar results. Study participants with sleep apnea were around 3 times more likely than those without apnea to have:3

How alcohol and drugs affect sleep

People often use alcohol and drugs to cope with the symptoms of mental illness. But alcohol and opioids also raise your chance of sleep apnea. Both slow breathing and relax upper airway muscles. This results in more episodes where you stop breathing.2

Also, certain medicines used to treat mental illness can increase your chances of developing obstructive sleep apnea.2

Dealing with mental health and sleep apnea

Some experts strongly suggest a complete medical checkup if a doctor is assessing you for mental health symptoms. This can help the doctor find if you have a medical condition with a mental health component, such as sleep apnea. If your doctor diagnoses you with sleep apnea, the next step is treatment. Treatments for apnea include:4

  • A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine or other airway pressure device
  • Oral devices
  • Surgery
  • Lifestyle changes

Your doctor could also refer you to a sleep medicine specialist.2

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.