How often do you wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day? Every morning? Some mornings? Never? Sleep apnea is a common problem that affects millions of Americans, especially those who are older and overweight. While past studies have shown that sleep apnea can have serious implications for your heart and brain, new research out this week has found that sleep apnea can change how your body handles sugar and may increase your risk of getting diabetes.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that happens when you’re asleep. When you’re awake, your body has no issue keeping your airway open. You’re constantly using the muscles of your throat and mouth so they have little time to relax or get in the way of your breathing. On top of that, gravity pulls down on those tissues and helps to keep them in place when they aren’t being used.
But all of that changes when you go to bed. As you drop into deeper sleep, the muscles of your mouth and throat relax and gravity starts to pull those tissues back into your throat. In most people, there isn’t enough tissue to block of the airway and the structure of the throat is rigid enough to hold everything in place, even with gravity pushing down. But in those with sleep apnea, there’s too much flexible tissue for the airway to stay open. As they drift off to sleep, their throat relaxes and slowly becomes blocked. This prevents a person from breathing and forces them to wake up to return their breathing to normal. This can happen hundreds or even thousands of times a night.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea and is it treatable?
Many people don’t know they have sleep apnea because these awakenings are so short that they drift right back to sleep. They feel tired in the morning, but don’t know why. A common sign of sleep apnea is snoring, but your bed partner may have also noticed you making gasping sounds at night. Giving yourself enough time to sleep but still feeling tired in the morning may also indicate that you have sleep apnea.
Fortunately sleep apnea is entirely treatable. The best treatment available is a machine called a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. Those with sleep apnea wear a mask hooked to a machine at night that pushes some air into the airway to prevent it from collapsing and blocking breathing. It can be noisy, but it works extremely well.
What did these researchers investigate?
Many people with sleep apnea are overweight or obese because the added fat tissue around their neck tends to put pressure on the throat and close it off. Past studies have shown that those with sleep apnea are at higher risk for diabetes, but it wasn’t clear if this was because of sleep apnea or because being overweight contributes to both diabetes and sleep apnea. Some studies had noticed that diabetes seemed to get better in some people once they started CPAP, indicating that sleep apnea might contribute to diabetes on its own. These researchers wanted to see whether treating sleep apnea in previously untreated people could lower diabetes risk.
To do this, the researchers recruited 39 obese individuals with sleep apnea. Half started CPAP and the other half were given a placebo pill that they were told would help their sleep apnea. Blood samples and blood pressure readings were collected before, during and after the study.
What did the researchers find?
As expected, CPAP resolved the symptoms of sleep apnea almost entirely in the group on CPAP. But the researchers also found that CPAP improved the body’s handling of sugar, kept blood glucose closer to the normal range, and kept insulin levels closer to where they should be. Those on CPAP had much lower levels of stress hormones and lower blood pressure after treatment. All of these factors translate into lower risk of diabetes.
How does this apply to me?
If you think you might be at risk of sleep apnea or think you might have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about getting assessed. If you know you have sleep apnea but haven’t sought treatment, this study should give you one more reason to get serious about treatment. The disorder can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes on top of making you feel constantly tired and stressed. Treatments are effective and, as this study indicates, could add both length and quality to your life.