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What Are the Side Effects of Sleep Apnea?

Catharine Nixon

February 4, 2022

If your car is low on oil, it’s not just going to affect the oil-filter. It’s going to affect your whole car; bearings, crankshaft, rings, cylinders and more. That’s because oil is needed for reducing friction between metal components and helping to keep the engine cool and clean while running. 

Similarly, poor sleep isn’t just going to only affect how tired you feel. Feeling fatigued is bad enough but lack of sleep also impacts on various body systems including your brain, cardiovascular system and even your sexual function.  

Why does sleep affect our whole bodies?  

Sleep is a complex function. It’s so complex that scientists confess they don’t understand sleep fully! 

In essence, sleep is essential for most bodily functions. It restores our energy, our brain’s neural connections and our hormones. 

Staying awake even for 24 hours can leave you as impaired as having a blood-alcohol reading of 0.1. Sleep deprivation is literally torture and can lead to everything from poor decision making to hallucinations and even death.

Given that there are long term effects of sleep apnea on the body, it’s not surprising that sleep is now touted as the third pillar of good health, along with diet and exercise.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition where your breathing pauses during the night. For a full explanation of why this happens, please see our article titled Why Do I Stop Breathing When I Sleep?

Left undiagnosed and untreated, sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that affects sleep quality to the extent that can affect many aspects of your health.

What are the side effects of sleep apnea? We don’t want to scare you and know that not all sufferers experience the same symptoms but please read on for some of the common side effects of sleep apnea.

Night time side effects of sleep apnea 

Sleep apnea fragments and disrupts sleep quality. Waking many times a night is obviously terrible for your total sleep time and your ability to get into deeper sleep cycles, which are the times when a lot of the beneficial effects of sleep happen.

Your blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are regularly outside acceptable levels during the night.

Sleep apnea can trick you to think you have other sleep issues instead. Perhaps you suspect you’re developing issues with your prostate because you’re getting up to go to the toilet multiple times a night. However, this can be a symptom of sleep apnea too.

Sleep quality can decline as we age but don’t be tempted to attribute changes in your sleep to getting older if you haven’t been tested for sleep apnea.

Daytime side effects of sleep apnea

Sleep apnea side effects then extend into your day, leaving you unrested and drowsy. There’s evidence that sleep apnea can create conditions of inflammation across the body. 

You’ll have difficulty concentrating and are at greater risk of accidents. Not just minor things like dropping your phone or spilling your coffee on your laptop but serious accidents at work or on the road. Research shows that people with sleep apnea are nearly 2. 5 times more likely to be involved in a car crash as the driver. 

The good news? This risk can be lowered by almost 75% with sleep apnea treatment. 

Sleep apnea effects on your cardiovascular system

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), atrial fibrillation (uneven heart beats) and even heart failure, heart attack and stroke.

That’s because each time an apnea happens (when a person stops breathing during sleep), oxygen levels in the blood drop causing the body to give a spike of adrenaline. Lots of this hormone over time can lead to high blood pressure and regular surges can damage the lining of arteries, veins and capillaries. 

Heavy stuff, hey? Getting your sleep apnea diagnosed and treated will lower all these risks. 

Sleep apnea side effects on your brain 

Dementia is one of the fastest-growing diagnoses. One of likely many risk factors for the development of dementia is poor sleep. 

Though the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, researchers have concluded that sleep apnea is connected with a significantly higher risk of both various types of dementia (including Alzheimer’s and Lewy body dementia) and Parkinson’s disease. 

Sleep apnea effects on diabetes and insulin

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It controls the flow of glucose in the blood. Diabetes happens when blood sugar levels are uncontrolled or elevated. 

Though it’s unclear whether there’s a direct cause and effect link between sleep apnea and diabetes, there’s growing evidence that not getting sufficient sleep can lead to developing diabetes, and doctors know that many people with diabetes also have sleep apnea. If you have Type II Diabetes, a sleep apnea test is a good measure for monitoring your overall wellness. 

** **Sleep apnea effects on your mental health 

Being tired and never feeling like you’re getting a refreshing sleep can be depressing and stress-inducing in itself. But there seems to be even more going on at a physiological level because the connection between having untreated sleep apnea and mental health concerns is high. 

One study shows those with sleep apnea were three times more likely to have depression, over 3.5 times more likely to be anxious and even 2-3 times more likely of feeling suicidal. With rising rates of suicide, especially for men, these figures are alarming. 

Fortunately, treatment of both sleep apnea and mental health conditions can make the world of difference. 

Sleep apnea impacts on your sexual health

Did someone say erectile dysfunction? These are not words anyone wants to hear but we’re sorry to tell you that sleep apnea is linked with difficulty engaging in sex and masturbation. 

The good news here is that this is a ‘causal link’, meaning that when you remove the cause by treating sleep apnea, you can change the outcome. So, before you reach for a pill, get your potential sleep apnea diagnosed and treated.

Sleep apnea impacts on your relationships

Sex is one part of intimacy and sleep apnea can affect your relationships in other ways too.

Your bed partner is unlikely to be overjoyed with you regularly gasping or choking during the night and they might be scared when you stop breathing. They may find themselves short on sleep and consequently fatigued and short-tempered.

One of the ironies of sleep apnea is that bed partners can be far more aware of the issue than the sufferer. This can lead to arguments when one person is encouraging seeking help and the other person dismissing their concerns. 

Even wider family and friends might be put out by your daytime sleepiness and lack of concentration, or might be worried about the effects on your wider health from your sleep.  

Need any more convincing? Here are some quick-fire stats to get you thinking…

  •  66 percent of snorers have sleep apnea
  •  1 in 4 men have undiagnosed sleep apnea
  •  69 percent of erectile dysfunction sufferers have untreated sleep apnea (and not, that figure is not a joke!).
  •  35 percent of sleep apnea sufferers have symptoms of depression and anxiety 
  •  80 percent of people whose high blood pressure medication doesn’t seem to be working have untreated sleep apnea
  •  30 percent of people with undiagnosed sleep apnea have high blood pressure 
  • 50-70 percent of stroke patients have sleep apnea

As you can see, having the fragmented sleep caused by sleep apnea has a domino effect on your physiology and causes a myriad of symptoms and side effects across your body and your 24-hour cycle.

The most important statistic of all

Perhaps the most important statistic of all is:

  • 81 percent of people with sleep apnea are not diagnosed.

Might this be you? If you have any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, don’t delay in getting yourself tested for sleep apnea. Just like you need a key to start your car, a sleep test is your key to finding out whether you have sleep apnea.

This can involve a night in a sleep laboratory, or can be as simple as wearing a WatchPAT device around your wrist for one night at home

That’s almost as easy as checking the oil in your car. 

And, just like your car will thank you for paying attention to it (and, if needed, topping up your oil), your whole body and mind will thank you for doing a sleep test for your health.

References*: *

Dawson, D., Reid, K. Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature 388, 235 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/40775

Karimi M, Hedner J, Häbel H, Nerman O, Grote L. Sleep apnea-related risk of motor vehicle accidents is reduced by continuous positive airway pressure: Swedish Traffic Accident Registry data. Sleep. 2015;38(3):341-349. Published 2015 Mar 1. doi:10.5665/sleep.4486


Unnikrishnan D, Jun J, Polotsky V. Inflammation in sleep apnea: an update. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2015;16(1):25-34. doi:10.1007/s11154-014-9304-x


Yasir etc al. Cardiovascular outcomes in sleep disordered breathing: Are we underestimating? 

Frontiers in Neurology, 15 March 2022 Sec. Sleep Disorders 


Guay-Gagnon M, Vat S, Forget MF, et al. Sleep apnea and the risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sleep Res. 2022;31(5):e13589. doi:10.1111/jsr.13589 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35366021/

Sleep Health Foundation fact sheet about Diabetes & Sleep: https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/diabetes-sleep.html

Kaufmann CN, Susukida R, Depp CA. Sleep apnea, psychopathology, and mental health care. Sleep Health. 2017;3(4):244-249. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2017.04.003


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