Sleep apnea is an incredibly common sleep disorder that affects millions of people in the U.S. Sleep plays a major role in your health, and while not enough sleep might make you feel groggy in the morning and sluggish throughout the day, having sleep apnea can actually play a huge role in your heart’s function.
As common as sleep apnea is, you might be surprised to find out that it is a major risk factor for heart disease. Arfaat Khan, M.D., a cardiologist at Henry Ford Health, explains how this sleep disorder relates to your heart and how it is a much bigger deal than simply not getting enough sleep or snoring in the night.
“Obstructive sleep apnea is when your airway partially or fully collapses in your sleep – resulting in reduced airflow. This not only disrupts your sleep cycle, but it also causes repetitive stimulation of the central nervous system.”
As your breathing is interrupted throughout the night, your body feels the effects of it. The decreased levels of oxygen in your bloodstream can lead to inflammation throughout the body. Additionally, your body responds to having less oxygen by raising your heart rate, causing your blood pressure to spike. Night after night of this stress on your heart can cause the heart muscles to thicken and put you at risk of many health issues including:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Atherosclerosis (fat buildups in the arteries)
- Increased stroke risk
- Increased heart attack risk
- Atrial fibrillation (AFib)
- Heart failure
How To Get Your Sleep Apnea Under Control
Studies show that controlling risk factors of sleep apnea can help minimize your heart disease risk, but Dr. Khan stresses that controlling the sleep apnea itself is your best bet.
“We find that patients who have heart disease and sleep apnea are far worse off than those who just have heart disease,” Dr. Khan says. “In many cases, patients may suffer from sleep apnea without even knowing it. As many as 50-75% of patients with heart failure also have sleep apnea – whether it has been diagnosed or not.”
It might be time to talk with your doctor or have your sleep evaluated if you experience:
- Daytime fatigue
- Morning headaches
- Snoring at night
- Dry mouth in the morning
- Hypertension that is resistant to treatment
Treating sleep apnea may involve using wearable devices such as a CPAP machine or oral appliances that help keep your airway clear at night. In some cases, oral surgery may be recommended to help you sleep better.
Some risk factors of sleep apnea can’t be changed – for example, your risk naturally increases with age and men are at higher risk than women – but taking control of those you can improves your odds tremendously. Dr. Khan recommends managing these risks as well:
- Weight. Being overweight can put you at risk for developing diabetes or obesity – two factors that increase your risk of sleep apnea. Talk to your doctor to see how losing some weight could be beneficial to your sleep.
- Blood pressure. High blood pressure is often associated with sleep apnea, so knowing your numbers and taking medications prescribed by your physician to help manage your levels will certainly help.
- Diet. Focus on making healthy food choices – avoiding ultra-processed products and carb-dense foods. Instead, make sure your diet is made up of lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
- Smoking and drinking habits. Since alcohol and tobacco products can impact your blood pressure and cause plaque buildup in the arteries, it is best to seriously limit your use or avoid all together.
The plus side is that treating your sleep apnea will not only help lower your heart disease risk, but it will also help you get a more restful night’s sleep. Many people with sleep apnea don’t realize how many times they are awake throughout the night because they aren’t getting enough oxygen. Odds are, managing your sleep apnea will also improve the way you feel throughout the day.
Reviewed by Dr. Arfaat Khan, a board-certified cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.