Top 3 Ways Sleep Apnea Affects The Body

Sleeping Man

Top 3 Ways Sleep Apnea Affects The Body

Sleep Apnea can affect the body in a variety of different ways if not treated accordingly.  Below are the top three ways sleep apnea can affect the body. 

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is when you have one or more pauses in breathing during sleep. These pauses may last from a few seconds to minutes and can occur over 30 times in an hour. When normal breathing resumes, the person can experience a choking or snort-like sensation, or be gasping for air, and may also experience loud snoring (Although snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, it is important to note that not all snoring is caused by sleep apnea). This ongoing cycle takes a person in and out of deep sleep and places them into a lighter sleep. Hence, leaving the person exhausted the next day, as their body is never allowed to get adequate sleep to repair itself.

Sleep apnea is a serious, progressive, and chronic health problem. Which means that it may worsen overtime, and can become life threatening if undiagnosed and untreated.  Unfortunately, sleep apnea is often undiagnosed during routine medical checkups; as there are no blood tests that can detect it. Therefore, many of those suffering from sleep apnea go about their lives without knowing, unless a bed partner witnesses it and brings it to their attention. Sleep apnea does not discriminate. It can affect young and old, male or female, and various ethnicities.

There are three different types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), Central Sleep Apnea (CSA), and Mixed Sleep Apnea; with OSA being the most prevalent amongst the population.

How Does Sleep Apnea Affect My Body?

Sleep apnea, as previously stated is a cessation of air.  The word “apnea” itself, means without a breath. This breathing cessation will not only make the person tired the next day, as they don’t get adequate sleep throughout the night; but it can also affect their mental and physical health as well.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are currently over 18 million American adults suffering from sleep apnea, and those numbers are on the rise.

In order to understand exactly what goes on during these apnea episodes, I would like you to inhale, then exhale and hold your breath.  How long can you hold your breath for? Most untrained people can hold their breath comfortably for about 25 to 30 seconds; while trained professionals can go upwards of well over a minute.  The average person suffering from sleep apnea may have pauses in their breath for well over a minute, upwards of anywhere between 5 to 100 times an hour; and this is when real danger starts to set in, as fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels begin to occur. 

During sleep, those suffering from sleep apnea have an airway blockage, which is usually as a result of over-relaxed soft tissue in the back of the throat.  As these tissues collapse, they contribute to airway closure and create the need for air (apnea episode occurs), affecting the body on various levels.  Furthermore, this need for air along with the fragmented sleep can lead to a variety of different health problems such as, but not limited to: hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease, cognitive and behavioral disorders, increased blood sugar levels and type 2 diabetes, acid reflux, adult asthma, weakened immune system, decreased libido, and liver problems to name a few.  For the purpose of this article, we will only focus on the first three as they are some of the most prevalent health-related conditions associated with OSA.

  1. Hypertension & Heart Disease

Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure is a condition in which the blood applies too much pressure on the walls of the blood vessels.  OSA is a recognized cause of secondary hypertension; (1) as in those suffering from OSA, the repeated apnea episodes contribute to a drop in blood oxygen levels.  This sudden drop in blood oxygen levels can affect the heart and blood vessels; as this stresses the heart over and over again throughout the night.  This condition, if not treated, can lead to heart disease, stroke, and/or death.  Having OSA increases your risk for acquiring hypertension, therefore it is imperative to monitor your blood pressure levels by a licensed medical professional.

2. Cognitive & Behavioral Disorders

“One of the major consequences of OSA is an impact on neurocognitive functioning.” (2) Thus, creating adverse effects on attention, concentration, motor skills, memory, and including learning disabilities in children to name a few.  

OSA often may lead to memory loss, as sleep helps to consolidate memories.  Furthermore, recent studies have demonstrated that there is a reduction in brain gray matter concentration in those suffering from severe OSA; and as a result memory impairment and executive dysfunction (difficulty planning, organizing, and focusing etc.) are observed. (3)  

Depression is also very common in those suffering from OSA.  “Symptoms of OSA and depression overlap and may, therefore, complicate diagnosis and treatment of each other.” (4)  Often a person may be treated for depression prior to realizing that the depression is being caused by OSA.

Anxiety and nocturnal panic attacks have  also been linked with OSA.(5) Recent studies demonstrate that the frequency of anxiety in those suffering from OSA is predominantly higher than in the general population regardless of their gender. (6) According to a study conducted by UC Berkeley, sleep deprivation amplifies anticipatory anxiety by firing up the brain’s amygdala and insular cortex, regions associated with emotional processing.  As a result, this pattern mimics the abnormal neural activity that is seen in anxiety disorders. (7)  

3. Increased Blood Sugar Levels & Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the way that the body processes blood sugar, hence contributing to higher than normal blood sugar levels in the body.  “Although this chronic condition continues to be on the rise worldwide, as we continue to see obesity on the rise; studies have also demonstrated that OSA is associated with insulin resistance, glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes, independent of obesity.  Research also demonstrates that up to 83% of patients with type 2 diabetes suffer from unrecognized OSA and increasing severity of OSA is associated with worsening glucose control.  However, it is still unclear whether OSA may lead to the development of diabetes over time. ” (8)  

Despite the fact that OSA can be associated with various health-related problems; it is also important to note that this condition does not only impact the person themselves, but others around them.  OSA has personal and societal consequences as the person suffering from this condition may develop depression; which can make it difficult to interact with others around them and engage in social activities.  OSA may also affect the person’s relationship with their partner, as OSA can contribute to a decreased libido in both men and women; not leaving aside the fact that the loud snoring can also be bothersome and disrupt their partners sleep as well.  

Obstructive sleep apnea can affect the body on a variety of different levels if not treated accordingly.  Various medical conditions have been associated with this disorder.  Therefore, it is imperative that individuals suffering from sleep apnea be taken a closer look at and treated accordingly by a licensed medical professional.


  1. Dopp, John M., et al. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Hypertension: Mechanisms, Evaluation, and Management.” Current Hypertension Reports, vol. 9, no. 6, 2007, pp. 529–534., doi:10.1007/s11906-007-0095-2.
  2. Lal, Chitra, et al. “Neurocognitive Impairment in Obstructive Sleep Apnea.” Chest, vol. 141, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1601–1610., doi:10.1378/chest.11-2214.
  3. Joo, Eun Yeon, et al. “Reduced Brain Gray Matter Concentration in Patients With Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome.” Sleep, vol. 33, no. 2, 2010, pp. 235–241., doi:10.1093/sleep/33.2.235.
  4. Ejaz, Shakir M et al. “Obstructive sleep apnea and depression: a review.” Innovations in clinical neuroscience vol. 8,8 (2011): 17-25.
  5. Rezaeitalab, Fariborz, et al. “The Correlation of Anxiety and Depression with Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome.” Journal of Research in Medical Sciences : the Official Journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, Mar. 2014,
  6. Rezaeitalab, Fariborz, et al. “The Correlation of Anxiety and Depression with Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome.” Journal of Research in Medical Sciences : the Official Journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, Mar. 2014,
  7. Anwar, Yasmin. “Tired and Edgy? Sleep Deprivation Boosts Anticipatory Anxiety.” Berkeley News, 9 July 2015,
  8. Pamidi, Sushmita, and Esra Tasali. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Type 2 Diabetes: Is There a Link?” Frontiers in Neurology, vol. 3, 2012, doi:10.3389/fneur.2012.00126
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