How Sleep Apnea Affects the Heart

When was the last time you woke up after a good night’s sleep feeling refreshed, bright-eyed, and eager to start the day? If you’re among the 18 million adults in the United States who’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, chances are you can’t remember.

While any chronic sleep disorder can seriously interfere with your ability to restore your body, reset your mind, and replenish your energy, sleep apnea can be particularly harmful.

That’s because sleep apnea causes momentary pauses in respiration that disrupt your sleep cycle and place enormous your cardiovascular system under an enormous amount of stress. Here’s how untreated sleep apnea can affect your heart.

Understanding sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is an ongoing sleep disorder that causes regular, momentary pauses in breathing during sleep. Lasting just a few seconds or longer than a minute, these involuntary respiratory pauses trigger a partial awakening as soon as your brain registers a lack of oxygen.

While people with mild sleep apnea may only experience a few breathing pauses and partial awakenings in one night, moderate to severe sleep apnea can cause interrupted breathing and partial awakenings dozens of times in just one hour.

There are two main types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

As the most common form of sleep apnea, OSA causes the muscles in your airway to relax and partly collapse, leading to brief breathing pauses followed by partial awakenings. Loud, chronic snoring is a frequent symptom of OSA.

Central sleep apnea (CSA)

Less common, sleep apnea occurs when your brain fails to properly signal the airway and chest muscles that control respiration, causing momentary breathing pauses and awakenings. Snoring is not a common symptom of CSA.

When sleep apnea is driven by both OSA and CSA, it’s called treatment-emergent central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea and cardiovascular strain

Momentary pauses in breathing don’t just wake you up — they cause a significant drop in your oxygen levels that triggers the release of adrenaline. Repeatedly flooding your system with this stress hormone can lead to chronically high adrenaline levels, which in turn helps set the stage for high blood pressure (hypertension).

By limiting your oxygen intake and exposing your cardiovascular system to stress hormones and other harmful stimuli night after night, sleep apnea places a huge amount of strain on your heart.

Untreated sleep apnea substantially raises your risk of developing a variety of heart problems, ranging from heart disease and heart failure to atrial fibrillation and recurrent heart attacks. It also increases your chances of having a stroke.

As many as four in five people with heart disease also have sleep apnea. If you already have heart disease, experiencing multiple episodes of low blood oxygen caused by untreated sleep apnea can actually give rise to an irregular heart rhythm and lead to sudden death. In fact, you’re five times more likely to die from heart disease if you also have untreated sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea treatment solutions

Because sleep apnea can have a major impact on your energy, mood, and ability to function each day — and because it can have a devastating effect on your cardiovascular health — a proper diagnosis and prompt treatment is vital to your well-being and long-term health.

Here at Eastern Connecticut Cardiology (ECCA), we offer comprehensive sleep apnea evaluations, including in-office sleep studies and at-home sleep tests, to determine the nature and severity of your disorder.

Wearing an oral appliance designed to keep your jaw in a position that promotes an open airway is often all it takes to resolve mild OSA, but if you smoke, drink alcohol, or are overweight, you may also find that quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol, and losing weight go a long way in helping you get a good night’s rest.

Moderate to severe OSA usually responds best to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This therapy, which uses a small amount of positive pressure to keep your airway open as you sleep, is delivered through a custom-fitted nasal mask.

If you’re ready to get your sleep apnea under control, we can help. Call your nearest ECCA office in Hartford or Manchester, Connecticut, today, or click online to schedule a visit with one of our sleep medicine specialists any time.

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