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The link between heart disease and sleep apnoea

Posted by Blooms The Chemist on 9 May 2023

The link between heart disease and sleep apnoea


Obstructive sleep apnoea can have a massive impact on your body if left untreated, including your heart.

We explore how leaving sleep apnoea untreated can significantly increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and more.

How does my obstructive sleep apnoea impact my heart?

Obstructive sleep apnoea is caused by your throat muscles temporarily obstructing your airway during sleep.

This can happen as many as 30 times per hour, and it’s likely that you stop breathing each time as your airway is temporarily obstructed by your throat muscles1.

Each time you stop breathing when you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnoea means that the oxygen levels in your body drop.

Your body reacts quickly to this and produces adrenaline, which is a stress hormone.

Over time, consistently high levels of adrenaline can contribute to high blood pressure1.

Does obstructive sleep apnoea cause specific issues with my heart?

There are a range of heart issues that can occur if you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea, which include2:

  • High blood pressure (known as hypertension): If you have obstructive sleep apnoea, there is a 50% chance that you may also have high blood pressure

  • Atrial fibrilliation (known as an irregular heartbeat): You are four times more likely to have atrial fibrillation compared to people without sleep apnoea

  • Coronary artery disease (known as the hardening of the arteries): This occurs when the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to your heart become narrow

  • Heart attacks and heart damage: You are twice as likely to develop a heart attack if you have severe untreated obstructive sleep apnoea than those without

You can also develop heart failure, which can be worsened if you have obstructive sleep apnoea.

How does obstructive sleep apnoea cause heart disease?

While the reason why people with obstructive sleep apnoea develop heart disease is not exactly known, it is thought that the drops in oxygen when you stop breathing while sleeping is the cause of heart problems2.

Each time your oxygen levels drop while you’re asleep, your body causes your blood pressure to go up.

With some people having sleep apnoea episodes where they stop breathing hundreds of times a night, this can put constant stress on your body and your heart.

Others think that the connection between sleep apnoea and heart problems is complicated, as some studies have shown an association between the two, but are unable to find a causal link3.

How can I treat my risk of heart disease and sleep apnoea?

If you’ve been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea, the best thing you can do is follow the ‘gold-standard’ of treatment known as Continous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP).

This is where a machine delivers constant air pressure through a full face mask, nasal mask or mouthpiece that is designed to keep your throat open.

You can also introduce some lifestyle changes to manage your risk of heart disease, including4:

  • Controlling your diet by eating less fried or processed foods high in sugar and eating more vegetables

  • Exercising more, but not before bed as this can get your adrenaline pumping and keep you awake

  • Limit your alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks for men

  • Avoid caffeine before bed

If you want more information about sleep apnoea, sleep health and more, please explore our Sleep Health Hub.

References

1Harvard Health Publishing, How does sleep apnea affect the heart? Accessed 18 April 2023

2American Thoracic Society, Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease, accessed 18 April 2023

3British Heart Foundation, Can sleep apnoea cause heart problems? Accessed 18 April 2023

4American Heart Association, What you need to know about how sleep apnea affects your heart, accessed 18 April 2023