What Happens While You Sleep Might Be Killing You
In my last article, I talked about several illnesses that can be caused by sleep apnea (OSA). In this article I’ll focus specifically on the heart; that little guy that gives you life.
What OSA Does To Your Heart
When you’re awake, you generally have good muscle tone, and your breathing is usually brisk enough to keep your airway open. Once you fall asleep, your muscles relax and your breathing slows down; which allows the airway to become ‘floppy’, making it vulnerable to collapse, either partially or completely.
When that happens, oxygen levels drop. This drop in 02 causes stress on your heart and it releases a hormone called epinephrine (adrenaline). It also responds to this by slowing down, causing the arteries to narrow in an effort to compensate for that.
These processes put quite a strain on your heart and can lead to heart disease. Let’s take a look at the four most likely to occur with OSA. The most common types found in sleep apnea are Hypertension, atrial fibrillation (afib), coronary artery disease (CAD), and heart failure.
But first let’s consider the difference in how men and women experience heart disease
Men And Women Experience Heart Disease Differently
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, but women experience symptoms differently than men. And most Physicians, including Cardiologists, tend to believe that heart disease is more common in men than women. As a result, they either don’t recognize the symptoms; or worse, have an ‘it’s all in your head’ mentality.
For instance, a guy goes to the ER with chest pain, and after a whole series of tests, his heart is thoroughly checked out. He is ultimately placed on an appropriate heart medication and will be monitored closely. While a woman who goes in with chest pains might be given a psychiatric evaluation and sent home on some anti-anxiety pill.
And because women are less likely to receive appropriate treatment, the death rate among females is higher; even though men have a greater risk of heart attack.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the four main heart diseases related to sleep apnea.
High blood pressure (hypertension)
You can only go without breathing for so long; eventually, your brain signals your body to wake up and take a breath. When this happens, the heart, which had slowed down, now starts beating faster, pumping more oxygen rich blood into your arteries.
However, these arteries are still constricted from your heart responding to low oxygen levels in your blood; and this, my friend, causes an increase in blood pressure. The problem becomes more severe over time, because eventually your blood pressure remains high 24/7.
Medicine your Dr. might prescribe for that will help reduce hypertension, either by getting rid of excess fluid around your heart, reducing your heart rate, or causing your arteries to open up.
Hypertension can also cause atrial fibrillation, but so can sleep apnea.
Atrial Fibrillation (a-fib)
The stress your heart is under during repeated episodes of not breathing causes a part of the heart called the left atrium to become enlarged. This results in a misfiring of the heart, and it begins to beat irregularly.
When that happens it can allow blood to pool in a part of the heart called the atria (see diagram). This pooling can allow the blood to coagulate, forming a clot; if this clot comes loose it can flow through your artery and lodge in your brain, causing a stroke.
Medicine your Dr. might prescribe for this condition will thin your blood, making clots less likely to happen. Other meds include those that slow the heart, lower blood pressure, and help stabilize the rhythm.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
CAD is the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death. Cholesterol and other fatty substances, build up in your arteries, causing what’s known as plaque; which makes your arteries stiff. If a chunk of this plaque breaks off, it can flow through your blood system; and you already know what happens next.
However, the repetitive cycle of oxygen levels dropping then returning to normal levels, (as what happens in OSA), creates an inflammatory process that contributes to the development of CAD.
And unfortunately, at this time there is no known cure.
Heart failure (HF)
The stress that sleep apnea puts on your heart causes it to become weak and not pump blood effectively. So even though it’s called heart failure, your heart is still beating; it’s just not as efficient as it could be. Heart failure is the leading cause of hospitalization in those over 65 and can lead to death
Medicines that treat HF include those that help with blood pressure, and stabilize the rhythm. Various surgical procedures can be done as well.
As good as these medications are, they also have side effects that can disrupt your sleep. These include, but are not limited to:
- Frequent urge to urinate, diarrhea, stomach pain.
- Nausea, vomiting, headache.
- Muscle pains, cough, sore throat.
Natural Supplements Can Also be Beneficial
There are numerous supplements out there that have been proven to effectively treat various heart diseases. However, use caution as many of them make claims; but because these supplements aren’t regulated, purity and standardization are legitimate concerns. They also have their own side effects that can cause various discomforts.
Take a look at the following supplements that have been shown to be of some benefit.
this is an enzyme produced by your body and is also found in organ meats. It’s used for cell growth and maintenance; and can also aide in the treatment of heart failure. Your body normally produces co-q10 in ample amounts; however, this decreases as we age, and also may be low in people with heart disease.
Omega 3 fatty acid (fish oil)
Your body doesn’t produce this type of good fat so it must be added to your diet. It works by lowering triglyceride levels, which are the fats that are stored in your body. If your triglyceride numbers get to high you can develop heart disease.
Good food sources include: Tuna, anchovies, sardines, and salmon; but you can also get Fish oil in supplement form.
is a type of sugar produced by the body, and studies indicate that it may improve heart function in people with coronary artery disease. You can also buy D-Ribose in powder form.
Cholesterol in plants helps lower cholesterol in humans. Good sources of this are found in certain fruits, vegetables, and oils.
The Big 3 Of A Healthy Lifestyle
- Diet–Rich in fruits vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
- Exercise–You really don’t need to strain yourself here; even a 30-minute walk 5 times a week can make a noticeable difference.
- Sleep–There are many health benefits from getting a good nights sleep. In fact, some have even gone so far as to say that sleep is more important than both diet and exercise!!
Can CPAP ‘Cure’ Heart Disease?
Not necessarily, although it can relieve the stress on your heart caused by sleep apnea; thus allowing it to function better. Also, some people have had their heart medications reduced, or stopped altogether after being on cpap.
Can sleep apnea be cured?
In some cases, people have been ‘cured’ of sleep apnea by losing weight, but don’t count on that. There are also some surgical procedures that have lessened the severity of OSA. Also, in some cases, something called ‘positional therapy’ has helped. In positional therapy, you are kept off your back by various methods.
What if I already have heart disease?
If you suspect you have sleep apnea, talk with your Dr. If you are already using CPAP, continue to do so; and take any medications as prescribed.
I just snore, should I be concerned?
Occasional snoring may be no more than a nuisance, more to your bed partner then you. However, long term snoring not only disrupts your sleep, it also causes injury to your throat through the constant vibration of tissue.
Here’s the problem…There are 2 arteries in your neck that bring oxygen-rich blood to your brain; which become inflamed by the constant vibration from snoring. Inflammation causes a hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis; which leads to heart disease.
So snoring by itself can be a serious health risk
Is sleep apnea hereditary?
Technically, yes. For instance, if your dad had sleep apnea and you inherit his physical characteristics, you’re more likely to experience sleep apnea.
If you have OSA, your heart takes quite a beating while you sleep; and if this initial issue isn’t dealt with, it could prove to be deadly. Also, heart disease isn’t just a man’s disease; the public, as well as medical professionals, need to be more aware of its impact on women. So if you suspect that you might have OSA, do yourself and those who love you a favor, and talk with your Dr.
We’ll cover different treatment options in our next blog. You won’t want to miss this one.