The health effects of sleep apnea

Sleep apnea makes you stop breathing during sleep. This can happen repeatedly throughout the night.

When you stop breathing, your brain tries to wake you up so you can start over. Constant sleep disruption can negatively impact your health.

This article looks at how sleep apnea affects your body and how to treat it so you can rest better.

health effects

Both apnea and sleep deprivation can have a major impact on your health. Sleep apnea can increase your risk of several health problems.

Excessive daytime sleepiness

Being tired can make you fall asleep during bad times, like driving. It may also impair memory and motor skills. It might put you in a bad mood.

Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) may increase your risk of injury and accident in the workplace.

Children with sleep apnea often struggle with schoolwork. They may also have attention and behavioral problems.

Stroke and transient ischemic attack

Untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini-stroke”.

During a stroke, the blood supply to parts of the brain is interrupted. Oxygen and nutrients cannot get through, and brain cells begin to die within minutes.

Sleep apnea is linked to stroke by lowering oxygen levels. This sets off a chain reaction in the brain, resulting in impaired blood flow.

A stroke can kill you. Or it could partially paralyze you. This may force you to relearn basic skills like walking and eating.

In a TIA, blood flow is blocked for only a few minutes. Still, in the first few minutes, it was impossible to distinguish it from a stroke. Additionally, TIA often warns of impending strokes.

A stroke or TIA is always a medical emergency. The faster you can get help, the less brain damage you will have.

Symptoms of a stroke appear suddenly. Notice:

  • numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body
  • Confusion, difficulty speaking, or difficulty understanding others
  • vision problems in one or both eyes
  • Dizziness, loss of balance and coordination, or difficulty walking
  • severe headache

Symptoms of a stroke

heart problems

Sleep apnea can have serious effects on your heart and circulatory system.

When you stop breathing and your oxygen levels drop, your body tries to circulate more oxygen by increasing your blood pressure. High blood pressure can cause heart and circulatory problems.

Sleep apnea is associated with the following factors:

  • atherosclerosis: A chronic disease involving plaque (accumulation) in the arteries. Arteries may become partially or completely blocked, blocking blood flow.
  • Heart attack: May be caused by rupture of atherosclerotic plaque. A blood clot forms and blocks blood flow. This causes the heart muscle to die.
  • Heart failure: The heart is too weak to pump properly, or to fill with enough blood.
  • Refractory hypertension (high blood pressure): Damage to the lining of arteries. May cause heart attack or stroke.
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Any of these heart problems can be fatal.

racial issues

In the United States, sleep apnea is more common among blacks, Hispanics and Indigenous people than among whites.


Research shows that sleep apnea slightly increases your risk of certain cancers. These include:

  • kidney cancer
  • Melanoma (skin cancer)
  • breast cancer
  • uterine cancer
  • lung cancer
  • colorectal cancer

Some researchers speculate that disrupted sleep may lead to oxidative stress, an imbalance at the molecular level that leads to free radicals in cells. These unhealthy cells are thought to be involved in a variety of diseases. Overstressed cells may contribute to the development of cancer.

Others attribute the increased risk to metabolic, inflammatory and immune changes caused by sleep apnea.

An earlier study showed that people with sleep apnea were five times more likely to die from cancer than the national average.

What is the link between sleep apnea and cancer?

chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and sleep apnea often go together and even have a name: COPD-OSA overlap syndrome.

COPD is an umbrella term for obstructive pulmonary disease, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Both chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sleep apnea involve lung inflammation.

When you have both, it further increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. You also face the following risks:

  • Increased carbon dioxide levels (hypercapnia)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (pulmonary hypertension)
  • Right heart failure
  • higher death rate


type 2 diabetes

Studies have shown that people with obesity and sleep apnea are more likely to develop diabetes. More than half of people with type 2 diabetes have sleep apnea.

fatty liver disease

Sleep apnea is also associated with fatty liver disease. The researchers observed more new-onset sleep apnea in patients with fatty liver.

In fatty liver disease, fat builds up in your liver, damaging your liver and impairing its function over time.

Fatty liver disease can be caused by heavy drinking. If not, it’s called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). In some people, the liver becomes inflamed and cell damage occurs.this is called non-alcoholic Steatohepatitis (Nash).

Obesity contributes to the development of NAFLD and NASH. NAFLD usually causes no symptoms. Symptoms of NASH can take years to manifest. They include:

  • severe fatigue
  • weakness
  • Jaundice (yellow eyes and skin)
  • unexpected weight loss
  • chronic itching
  • spider veins

foods to fight fatty liver


Obesity is thought to be responsible for sleep apnea and its many overlapping conditions. This includes type 2 diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver.

When someone is obese, fat deposits can narrow the airways. The muscles that keep the airway open usually relax during sleep, which is exaggerated in sleep apnea patients because they start with narrowed airways where fat deposits.

Poor sleep may also disrupt appetite hormones. Ghrelin makes you hungry. Leptin, its counterpart, makes you feel full after eating. Sleep deprivation, depending on the type and duration, may result in too much ghrelin and too little leptin.

Tiredness can also deprive you of motivation to exercise or be active, which can also lead to weight gain.

Who is at risk?

You are at higher risk for sleep apnea if you have:

  • overweight
  • male
  • 40 years old or older
  • Have a family history of small airways

low libido

Studies have shown that both men and women with sleep apnea are more likely to have low libido or libido. (Other genders have not been studied.)

In one study, about 23 percent of men with sleep apnea had low libido. They tend to be older and more depressed than more motivated men.

Sleep apnea may also be associated with higher rates of erectile dysfunction. People over the age of 65 with sleep apnea are more likely to experience impaired libido and sexual function.

There are fewer studies on the sexual effects of sleep apnea in women. Sleep apnea treatment improves libido in women, a small study suggests.

Other research has shown that sleep apnea treatment can improve libido and performance in men.

CPAP and your sex life


Other conditions that sleep apnea can cause include:

  • Memory and attention problems (eg, attention problems, deficits in verbal memory)
  • Dementia
  • Pregnancy complications (eg, gestational diabetes, hypertension, low birth weight babies)


There are many treatments for sleep apnea. It may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for you.


The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The machine is attached to the tube and mask you wear while you sleep. Pressurized air prevents tissue in the airway from collapsing.

Similar bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machines provide different pressures during inspiration and expiration.

CPAP/BiPAP therapy can improve sleep apnea and many related conditions.

If you breathe through your mouth at night, you may need a mask that covers your nose and mouth. Or you can use a chin strap to keep your mouth closed nicely. These are usually used with CPAP.

Natural Remedies for Sleep Apnea

Devices and Implants

If you can’t stand CPAP or don’t want to use CPAP, you have other options. Several oral devices and implants are available.

Oral equipment is tailor-made for you. Wear them while you sleep. These include:

  • Jaw repositioning mouthpiece: keep the jaw forward to prevent it from blocking the airway
  • Tongue Retention Device: Holds the tongue forward to prevent it from blocking the airway

Some devices can adjust the jaw and tongue at the same time.

Use a newer oral device while you are awake. It stimulates the muscles of the tongue. The device was used once a day for 20 minutes for six weeks. It helps strengthen the muscles so they don’t collapse into your airways.

Implants are surgically inserted into your body, stimulating hypoglossal nerve, which controls your tongue. It keeps the tongue away from the airway.

oral treatment

orofacial Means “mouth and face”. Oral therapy can help strengthen the muscles that control your:

  • Face
  • lips
  • Tongue
  • soft palate
  • upper part of the throat (pharynx)

As with other sleep apnea treatments, this helps keep the airway open.

How a Didgeridoo Helps Sleep Apnea


Sleep apnea surgery is less common than other treatments. This may be an option if you are not getting help from CPAP or equipment.

It is sometimes used to clear upper airway obstructions. These surgeries include:

  • Tonsillectomy (tonsillectomy): Enlarged tonsils block air flow
  • Mandibular Advancement: Enlarges the upper airway by moving the mandible forward
  • tracheostomy: passing a tube through a hole in your neck and into the windpipe

Purpose of sleep apnea surgery

lifestyle changes

Healthy lifestyle changes may help relieve sleep apnea. They include:

  • Weight loss: Because obesity is associated with sleep apnea, losing weight may reduce or eliminate symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol before bedtime: Alcohol may relax the structures around the airways and cause apnea.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking greatly increases your risk of sleep apnea and makes it worse.
  • Improve bedtime habits: Maintain a consistent bedtime, allow enough sleep time, and create a comfortable environment. Also, limit late night workouts and screen/light exposure.

What is sleep hygiene?


Sleep apnea doesn’t just make you feel tired the next day. It increases your risk of many health problems.

Treating sleep apnea can reduce your risk of other conditions and may help treat any related conditions you already have, such as diabetes or erectile dysfunction.

VigorTip words

You may not realize you have sleep apnea, especially if you sleep alone. Consult your healthcare provider if you have symptoms, such as excessive daytime sleepiness.

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to a variety of health problems. Don’t take the risk – get tested and work with your healthcare provider to find the treatment that’s right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the long-term effects of sleep apnea?

    In the long run, sleep apnea can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver and kidney disease, obesity, cancer, and more.

  • Can sleep apnea be cured?

    Sometimes it is. If it’s caused by obesity and you lose weight, sleep apnea may go away. Surgery or implants can also cure the disease.

  • What is the life expectancy of people with untreated sleep apnea?

    People with untreated sleep apnea face a higher risk of death than people without sleep apnea or those with successful treatment.

    Severe sleep apnea triples your risk of dying from any cause. Regular use of CPAP appears to significantly reduce this risk.