The impact of poor-quality sleep can go far beyond feeling fatigued during the day. A sleep disorder such as sleep apnea increases the risk of developing serious health issues including type 2 diabetes. Obesity is a contributing risk factor for both sleep apnea and diabetes.
What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea and is caused by an obstruction to the airways as the tissues in the throat relax while you sleep. The tissues collapse to narrow or block the airways leading to breathing difficulties.
The resulting drop in oxygen level in the blood triggers a brief arousal from sleep for air. This can happen multiple times every hour and often leads to excessive daytime fatigue from disrupted sleep. These arousals can be so brief you may not even be aware they are happening.
The Link Between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Diabetes
Over 50% of people with type 2 diabetes experience OSA. This compares to the population at large, of which up to 17% will experience some degree of sleep apnea. This rapid increase among diabetes sufferers is hard to ignore and is another pointer to a link between the two conditions.
While obesity is a major risk factor in developing diabetes and increases the risk of OSA, the drop in oxygen levels when the airways become blocked due to OSA can worsen diabetes.
This results in an increased level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream which increases the risk of insulin resistance. Without the appropriate insulin control, you can experience higher blood sugar levels.
This is not the only reason why managing sleep apnea is important in helping manage diabetes and your overall health. Other factors to consider include:
- daytime fatigue can make you more likely to forget to take your medication, placing you at further risk of diabetes complications
- fatigue from a sleep disorder also affects your motivation, so you ditch the exercise or healthy eating habits required to help control diabetes
- left untreated, OSA increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease
Diagnosing Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The National Institutes of Health estimates that 80 million people have sleep apnea, of which 80% remain undiagnosed. This is a disorder that can be treated if diagnosed; yet left unchecked, this can increase the risk of health issues like diabetes. Indeed, those with a more severe degree of OSA, where they awake for air over 30 times every hour, are seen to have poorer control of blood sugar levels.
This symbiotic relationship between the two conditions means a diagnosis of OSA could help you better manage your diabetes, and vice versa. Therefore, it is key for diabetics to be aware of the following symptoms of OSA:
- frequent awakenings from sleep, sometimes gasping for air
- morning headache
- dry throat in the morning
- daytime fatigue
- poor concentration
- mood swings
If you are diabetic and recognize some of these symptoms, you should consult with your healthcare provider. The link between the two conditions could mean that managing one can help to better manage the other.
Managing Both Sleep Apnea and Diabetes
If your health care provider suspects you are experiencing sleep apnea, they can arrange a sleep study – either an at-home sleep study or in a sleep clinic.
Once diagnosed with OSA, your health care provider can recommend the appropriate treatment to manage the severity of your disorder.
Mild to moderate OSA might be managed with some lifestyle changes that are also used to manage diabetes -- particularly where obesity is a major contributing risk factor. Therefore, more exercise and a healthier diet will be recommended.
As OSA results from blocked airways, addressing any sinus issues or allergies may also be key to managing the condition. This could involve ensuring you take prescribed allergy medication -- or adapting your habits and bedroom to minimize your exposure to allergens like pollen, dust mites or pet dander.
Positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy is often prescribed to help treat moderate to severe OSA. The treatment involves a device that supplies pressurized air through a mask worn while you sleep. The air is set to a pressure that keeps your airways open through the night.
By keeping the airway open, PAP eliminates the breathing pauses. This in turn prevents the drop in oxygen level and the rise in carbon dioxide in the bloodstream that can lead to insulin resistance. Therefore, by adhering to PAP therapy, you can better manage both your PAP symptoms and your diabetes.
Can diabetes cause sleep apnea? Each condition can be a contributing risk factor for the other condition. Therefore, it is important that obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed if you are diabetic.
Managing one condition can help better manage the other -- and therefore treating sleep apnea and returning to nights of uninterrupted sleep may benefit your diabetes management.