How sleep apnea affects your heart

Sleep apnea

Every now and then, it’s normal to snore when you snooze—particularly if you’ve had an extra glass of wine, a particularly long day or you’re trying to fend off a cold.

But if you regularly wake up in the middle of the night to find yourself gasping for a breath or your partner complains of losing sleep over your snoring, it might be a sign of something more serious. Namely, sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that affects millions of Americans, but it can be serious and potentially fatal if left untreated. People with sleep apnea experience interrupted breathing—sometimes up to 30 times per night—which can result in poor quality sleep. But that’s not all.

Sleep apnea has been linked to worsened cardiac health, and can lead to high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke and heart failure. And, in 2017, a study from the National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project and the American Heart Association showed that severe obstructive sleep apnea—the most common type of the disorder—has the potential to more than double the risk of death from heart disease.

How exactly sleep apnea can affect your heart

At first, it may seem a little surprising that interrupted breathing can affect your heart health so significantly. But your breathing and heart rate are more closely tied than you might suspect.

Sleep apnea’s trademark interruptions in breathing occur when a person’s throat muscles relax, blocking the airwaves during sleep. Not only does this interrupt breathing, it also causes a drop in heart rate and blood pressure. After a few seconds of not breathing, a person usually stirs themselves with a choking or gasping sound and resumes breathing. The body works quickly to react by accelerating heart rate and increasing blood pressure.

After several years, this pattern can start to take a toll on your body.

“It’s a challenge for the heart to respond to this increased workload every night,” says Robert Kuhn, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health. “Over time, the walls of the heart begin to thicken and the structure of the heart changes. It becomes less flexible and can increase your risk of arrhythmia, heart disease and stroke.”

Sleep apnea sufferers often have other risk factors for heart disease, too, like smoking, diabetes, a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more and obesity or overweight. Coupled with sleep apnea, this can make their heart disease risk much higher than the average person’s.

Is sleep apnea hurting your heart?

Some people with sleep apnea may have already received an official diagnosis, or their partner may have alerted them to its obvious and disruptive symptom: snoring.

If you haven’t been officially diagnosed with sleep apnea but suspect you might be at risk, there are a few symptoms that might help determine whether or not you have it. People with sleep apnea often experience the following symptoms:

  • Choking, gasping or gulping for air during sleep, often so much so that it awakens them several times per night
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • High blood pressure
  • Nighttime sweating
  • Waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat or headache
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day

If you have one or more of these symptoms, they may be a result of sleep apnea. Fortunately, the disorder is easily diagnosed using a sleep study that can be conducted in a doctor’s office, outpatient center or in your home.

Treating sleep apnea

If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor can work with you to get your sleep apnea under control through a combination of medical intervention and lifestyle changes—a plan that will help ensure more restful sleep and a healthier heart.

“Before medical intervention, the first thing you should do is try and address some of the lifestyle factors that might be contributing to sleep apnea, like your weight, starting a fitness routine, quitting smoking and cutting back on alcohol, particularly before bedtime,” says Dr. Kuhn.

In addition to helping relieve sleep apnea symptoms, addressing these factors helps you form healthier habits.

“While the goal is to address sleep apnea, controlling things like weight, alcohol and tobacco use and starting a fitness regimen will have a positive effect on your overall health and heart disease risk,” says Dr. Kuhn.

If these changes still don’t help relieve your sleep apnea, your doctor can refer you to a sleep specialist who can develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).