The Dangers of Uncontrolled Sleep Apnea
You’ve probably heard that regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet are the most important things you can do for your cardiovascular health. As it turns out, though, the quality of sleep you receive is also critical to your heart’s wellbeing.
In particular, undiagnosed sleep apnea is directly tied to an increased risk in cardiovascular and metabolic health. The scariest part? You might not even know you have this very common problem.
“Sleep apnea happens when upper airway muscles relax during sleep and pinch off the airway, which prevents you from getting enough air. Your breathing may pause for 10 seconds or more at a time, until your reflexes kick in and you start breathing again,” explains Jonathan Jun, M.D. , a pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep .
Sleep apnea occurs in about 3 percent of normal weight individuals but affects over 20 percent of obese people, Jun says. In general, sleep apnea affects men more than women. However, sleep apnea rates increase sharply in women after menopause. Sleep apnea is often linked to heart disease and metabolic issues like diabetes.
What are the signs of sleep apnea?
There are two kinds of sleep apnea : obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea happens when air can’t flow into or out of the nose or mouth, although you’re trying to breathe. Central sleep apnea happens when the brain fails to send the right signals to your muscles to make you start breathing. (This type is less common.)
“Sleep apnea may be noticed more by the bed partner than by the sleeper,” says Jun. “Your bed partner might notice that your breathing pauses, or they may complain of your loud snoring.”
That said, snoring itself—though annoying—isn’t the same as sleep apnea. Snoring is just the vibration sound created by airway resistance. You can snore loudly and not have sleep apnea, and you may even have sleep apnea without much snoring.
People with sleep apnea might also suffer from unexplained fatigue and mood swings, because their breathing interruptions continually wake them and prevent them from settling into a deep, nourishing sleep.
The consequences can be significant, Jun says. “We're talking about car accidents in the daytime, lost productivity at work, mood swings, waking up feeling groggy and falling asleep in class.”
Other sufferers might wake up with a dry mouth, since sleep apnea tends to make you breathe with an open mouth, drying out your saliva. Some awaken with a headache, which may be caused by low oxygen or high carbon dioxide levels during sleep.
How is Weight Control Linked to Sleep Apnea?
"Weight control is very important. There are many studies showing that losing weight can either completely cure you of sleep apnea or at least make it less severe," Jun says.
Sleep apnea, cardiovascular risk and metabolism
Diagnosing and treating sleep apnea for better health
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