What does sleep apnea do to your body?

Take a moment to think about some of the most common chronic health conditions. High blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity might come to mind. However, did you know that more than 936 million adults may also suffer from obstructive sleep apnea?

This is likely to come as a surprise, and many individuals are less than familiar with the risks that sleep apnea poses to their health. Let's therefore use this article to highlight some of the main dangers if sleep apnea is not kept in check. It will then be much easier to understand why consulting a qualified specialist is so important.

The Reproductive System

This is one of the few areas which only applies to men. Males who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea may have difficulty becoming aroused and/or maintaining an erection during sex. This is obviously a concern for anyone who wishes to have children. While erectile dysfunction (ED) can be embarrassing, the good news is that treating obstructive sleep apnea may eliminate the associated symptoms entirely. 

The Cardiovascular System

What does sleep apnea do to your body in relation to the heart? This is one of the most widely studied topics, and scientists have come to some troubling conclusions. It is a well-known fact that sleep apnea increases the chances of being diagnosed with high blood pressure. This is primarily due to the strain placed upon the cardiovascular system caused by sudden drops in blood oxygen levels (these occur when breathing becomes disrupted during the overnight hours). 

Sleep apnea has also been linked to abnormal heart rhythms, one of the most common being atrial fibrillation. Not only can this impact the health of the cardiac muscles over time, but any type of fibrillation places individuals at a higher risk of experiencing a stroke or a myocardial infarction (heart attack). 

The Nervous System

A specific type of sleep apnea known as central sleep apnea is caused by neurological problems within the brain. While not as well understood as obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea has been known to manifest itself neurologically in the form of numbness and tingling in certain portions of the body (such as the extremities). 

It is also wise to include psychological issues within this section. Individuals suffering from sleep apnea are more likely to experience issues such as anxiety, depression, and muddled thinking. These can be caused by abnormal levels of specific hormones including serotonin, epinephrine, and cortisol. 

The Digestive System

Research likewise seems to indicate a tentative link between obstructive sleep apnea and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It is thought that increased insulin resistance and inflammation are two root causes. Fatty liver disease can lead to scarring and unhealthy enzyme levels. 

Yet another confounding factor is that sleep apnea can exacerbate the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD). Not only is this chronic illness quite uncomfortable, but it can also make it even more difficult to remain asleep. 

The Respiratory System

There is little doubt that obstructive sleep apnea dramatically impacts the ability of the body to obtain oxygen. It therefore stands to reason that OSA can also affect the lungs. This has indeed been backed up by solid research. 

Studies indicate that sleep apnea can increase the severity of both chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and asthma. Those who are constantly short of breath or who find it difficult to perform aerobic activities for an extended period of time should therefore consult with a qualified physician. 

The Endocrine System

We mentioned insulin resistance earlier in this article in relation to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This is essentially a condition that makes it more difficult for the cells of the body to react to the presence of insulin. This causes blood sugar levels to spike, and has been linked to the development of adult onset (Type 2) diabetes. 

It should also be noted that obstructive sleep apnea may be linked to a group of conditions commonly referred to as "metabolic syndrome".

As the title suggests, this syndrome is defined by a number of concurrent symptoms such as elevated levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol), high blood sugar, hypertension, and a large waist circumference. The problem here is that it can sometimes be difficult to link these seemingly disparate situations together; perhaps resulting in less-than-effective treatments. 

What Can be Done to Avoid These Scenarios?

This is the next logical question to address. We have just seen that the presence of sleep apnea can actually lead to a number of potentially serious health conditions. So, it only stands to reason that addressing the underlying problem represents the first step towards leading a healthier lifestyle.

Assuming that you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, the chances are high that your doctor will recommend using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This will provide your body with an ample supply of oxygen while asleep. A CPAP consists of a central pumping unit, a flexible hose, and a mask that attaches to your nose or mouth. Note that a variety of CPAPs are available; each being designed to address the personal requirements of the user. 

However, this still might not be enough. It is just as important to enact a series of proactive lifestyle changes. Examples include (but may not be limited to):

  • Quitting smoking
  • Abstaining from drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • Reducing your caffeine intake
  • Lowering your body mass index with the help of a balanced diet
  • Obtaining plenty of exercise
  • Finding ways to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety

There is simply no reason why obstructive sleep apnea should be allowed to dominate our lives. If you suspect that your present health issues may be linked to OSA, consult a specialist as soon as possible. 


  1. https://www.ncoa.org/adviser/sleep/sleep-apnea-statistics/
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20377631
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2937104/
  4. https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep-apnea/effects-on-body#Respiratory-system