Does Sleep Apnea Affect the Quality of Your Deep Sleep?

Sleep is a vital restorative tool, both physically and mentally. Quality of sleep impacts on your ability to function properly, as well as your overall health and mood. 

However, there are different stages of sleep you pass through during the night, one of them being deep sleep. This stage is key in restoring the body and the brain, but it can be impaired when you have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder which causes breathing difficulties as you sleep. The most common form is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), where the upper airways collapse, prompting the body to react and awake for air. Someone with OSA may not be aware of these arousals as they can be quite brief.

Such arousals can occur up to 35 times every hour in severe cases, with the frequent interruptions leading to sleep deprivation. This will place you at an increased risk of health issues such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression.

As well as the frequent awakenings at night, other symptoms of OSA include:

  • excessive fatigue
  • snoring
  • poor concentration
  • mood swings
  • morning headaches
  • irritability
  • dry mouth in the morning

What Is Deep Sleep?

Sleep contains a cycle of stages involving non-rapid eye movement sleep (non-REM) followed by rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Deep sleep is the third of three stages of non-REM sleep and is a crucial part of the body’s restorative process. 

A summary of the stages of sleep helps place this stage of sleep, also called slow-wave sleep, in to better context.

  • Stage One non-REM lasts around 10 minutes after falling asleep and is easy to be awoken from.
  • Stage Two non-REM lasts between 30 and 60 minutes, and sees a reduction in body temperature, as well as a lowering of the heart rate and slower breathing
  • Stage Three non-REM lasts between 20 to 40 minutes, where it is hard to awake someone
  • REM is where you dream and when the muscles are immobilized.

This cycle of stages repeats four or five times through the night, although you will spend less time in stage three non-REM slow-wave sleep with each cycle. 

It is during this stage that the consolidation of memories occurs, as well as the sleep that helps us feel fully refreshed, helping enhance our mental performance the following day.

Children and teenagers who are still developing also need quality deep sleep as growth hormones are released during this stage of sleep. However, as we get older, we start to spend less time in this stage, and therefore maintaining quality of sleep remains important.

The REM stage which follows slow-wave sleep is vital for learning and memory consolidation. This stage of sleep assists in restoring the natural chemical balance within the brain -- and together with deep sleep, plays an essential role in our overall health, reducing the risk of the serious health complications linked to sleep deprivation.

Can Sleep Apnea Affect Deep Sleep?

OSA causes frequent interruptions to sleep and will impact on your crucial slow-wave sleep if left untreated. Indeed, although OSA may impact all stages of sleep, it is more common during this stage of sleep since this is when muscles are most relaxed. 

As OSA results from blocked airways, when the throat muscle tissues are more relaxed they are more likely to collapse and block the airways.

Therefore, if the airways are more likely to block and cause breathing difficulties during a stage of deeper sleep, this stage of sleep will be more interrupted as a consequence. 

The more severe someone’s OSA, the more arousals they will experience every hour and the more fragmented their sleep becomes.

If deep sleep is consistently fragmented it can lead to sleep deprivation, and the important processes associated with this stage of sleep including memory consolidation will be impaired. 

Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to serious health problems, including:

  • heart disease
  • hypertension
  • diabetes
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • excessive fatigue
  • mood swings
  • memory issues

How Can You Deal With Sleep Apnea?

As OSA increases the risk of serious health problems, diagnosing the disorder is paramount since it can be treated. The disorder’s symptoms may be reduced and at times eliminated by appropriate treatment, allowing you to receive good quality of sleep once more. 

As one of the primary contributing factors for OSA is weight, one of the first recommendations may involve lifestyle changes. This can involve regular exercise, which can help you lose weight if required, can also help you receive more slow-wave sleep. 

A healthier diet will also be recommended, containing fruit and vegetables and a diet that is low in fat and higher in protein and fiber. Foods which contain higher levels of processed sugars and fats can see you put on weight as well as being disruptive to sleep.

One of the primary treatments for sleep apnea is CPAP therapy, which may be prescribed for moderate to severe OSA. 

This involves a machine to filter and supply a steady stream of pressurized air through a mask worn overnight. The air helps to keep the airways open and prevents the collapse which causes the frequent interruptions to sleep due to breathing difficulties.

Further recommendations to help sleep at night include:

  • avoid caffeine at least seven hours before going to bed
  • exercise earlier in the day and not too close to bed time
  • cut back on alcohol consumption, as alcohol can reduce the quality of sleep.
  • use relaxation techniques like meditation or have a warm bath in the evening
  • listen to white or pink noise to help you relax

Deep sleep is crucial for the functioning of the body and the brain. However, OSA can affect this stage of sleep by causing frequent interruptions to sleep. If you awake often at night, sometimes gasping for air, or snore, consult with your doctor about the possibility of sleep apnea.