The Connection Between High Blood Pressure and Sleep Apnea

Nearly half of adults have high blood pressure (aka, hypertension) – and only about one-quarter have their blood pressure under control. It’s known as a “silent disease” as there are no symptoms of high blood pressure.

High blood pressure can result from several risk factors including a poor diet, a lack of regular exercise and bad habits such as smoking. However, you might be just as surprised to learn about the relationship between high blood pressure and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). 

How might OSA contribute to this condition? What is the relationship between the respiratory and cardiovascular systems?

Are there any ways to alleviate the symptoms associated with sleep apnea? What other lifestyle changes could prove to be beneficial? This article will focus on these points to fully understand why adopting a proactive approach is the best way to ensure a healthy future. 

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which your airways narrow during the overnight hours while at rest. As a result, your body will be temporarily deprived of oxygen. OSA can also cause individuals to frequently awaken, leading to broken sleep patterns and feelings of lethargy throughout the day. 

Some other symptoms attributed to the presence of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring.
  • Waking up gasping for breath or coughing.
  • Morning headache.
  • Fatigue and drowsy driving.
  • Depression.

Smoking, diabetes, obesity, and genetics play important roles in determining your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea. Those who have been diagnosed with high blood pressure are also more likely to suffer from sleep apnea. Let's delve deeper into the relationship itself. 

The Link Between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and High Blood Pressure

Ongoing research has shown that as many as 50 percent of people diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea also suffer from hypertension. Why is this the case? There are two primary scenarios that should be discussed in greater detail. 

The first involves the primary sign of OSA: interrupted breathing cycles during sleep. When the body is deprived of oxygen due to a narrowing of the airways, carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream increase. This is medically known as "hypoxia". 

Hypoxia causes the heart to pump faster in order to deliver oxygen to various portions of the body leading to increased blood pressure.

Poor quality sleep has also been tentatively linked to hypertension. Studies seem to indicate that sleeping for fewer than five hours each night can lead to a rise in blood pressure. Of course, broken periods of rest are the most prevalent symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. 

Related Conditions that May Cause Hypertension to Worsen

There are additional variables that will also need to be clarified before discussing your treatment options. One is associated with some medical conditions that might not appear to be related to OSA at first glance. These can include (but aren't always limited to):

  • Chronic inflammation.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Oxidative stress.
  • Changes in levels of specific hormones such as adrenaline.
  • Atherosclerosis (a hardening of the arteries).

Note that these can sometimes be caused by obstructive sleep apnea or result from OSA. In other words, such scenarios may sometimes represent a proverbial "two-way street". 

Another point to mention involves the psychological stress that frequently accompanies severe bouts of sleep apnea. You will often feel lethargic, stressed and unable to concentrate. Furthermore, a lack of quality sleep tends to worsen the symptoms associated with anxiety. 

Anxiety is a well-known risk factor for developing high blood pressure as well as a host of other medical disorders. 

PAP Therapy

Now that the relationship between these two conditions has been laid bare, it is clear to see why individuals should always seek modern treatment options. One common method involves the use of a positive airway pressure (PAP) machine. 

A PAP provides your lungs with a source of pressurized air, helping to ensure that your windpipe remains open. In turn, your body will obtain the oxygen that it requires to function normally. 

The good news is that a PAP will help to normalize your blood pressure while asleep while also increasing the chances that you can obtain a quality night of rest. It should also be pointed out that some studies suggest that the regular use of a CPAP may be able to moderate daytime blood pressure levels. 

Additional Steps to Take

Although the steps outlined in the previous section can often produce viable results, there may still be times when more targeted approaches are warranted. 

This is particularly the case for those who have a genetic predisposition to develop hypertension or when referring to individuals who have already been diagnosed with extremely high blood pressure. 

Some medications (such as beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme [ACE] inhibitors) have been shown to demonstrate quantifiable results. 

Lifestyle Factors

There are also lifestyle improvements that can offer benefits over time. Here are some practical steps to consider sooner than later:

  • Adopting a healthy diet.
  • Obtaining plenty of physical exercise.
  • Going to sleep at the same time each night.
  • Avoiding stimulants such as coffee and nicotine.
  • Lowering your weight and body mass index (BMI).

As always, it is prudent to seek the advice of a nutritionist, medical professional or sleep specialist to create a personalized strategy. 

Your Long-Term Prognosis

Hypertension and obstructive sleep apnea are two concerns which need to be taken very seriously. Thankfully, modern science is on your side. There are now plenty of ways in which both conditions can be alleviated over time. This is why making the proper changes today is the best way to ensure a long and healthy life.