Beyond Snoring: Sleep Apnea’s Surprising Impact on Your Mental Wellness

Beyond Snoring: Sleep Apnea’s Surprising Impact on Your Mental Wellness

Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing for brief periods while you sleep. Experts estimate that sleep apnea affects about 5% to 10% of the population,1 but many people may have it without knowing. 

You may not realize that sleep apnea and mental health are closely tied together. Sleep apnea causes you to lose out on precious sleep and affects the chemical balance in your brain.2 

In this article, we will break down all the basics of sleep apnea and mental health, including how this condition can affect your mental well-being and what you can do to stay sane. 

Sleep Apnea and Mental Health: The Complex Relationship

Dealing with sleep apnea will interfere with your ability to get a good night of sleep. Sleep and mental health go hand-in-hand. Your mental health affects how well you sleep, but your sleep quality also affects your mental health.

Mental Health Affects Sleep

If you’re anxious, you’ll find it hard to fall (and stay) asleep at night. Or, if you’re depressed, you may sleep more during the day and then have a hard time sleeping at night. 

When your sleep schedule is thrown off, it interferes with your mental health even more, creating a cycle of poor sleep and diminished mental health. 

Sleep Affects Mental Health

Sleep is essential for mental well-being. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate existing mental health issues and make you feel more emotionally vulnerable, making it difficult to handle everyday stressors. 

Sleep apnea interrupts your sleep since you’ll wake up frequently throughout the night. This is a problem because every sleep stage is important for a full night of restorative sleep.3

How Can Sleep Apnea Affect Mental Health?

A person with sleep apnea might wake up as many as 30 times per hour.2 This means that sleep apnea can lead to chronic sleep deprivation. 

One researcher pointed out that people with sleep apnea typically have low levels of a chemical called GABA in their brain and high levels of another chemical called glutamate. GABA helps you stay calm and helps with mood regulation. Glutamate creates feelings of stress, and when levels are high, your brain won’t function as efficiently.2 

Think of mental health issues as a sickness of the brain. Anything that interferes with the health of your brain will interfere with your mental health, and sleep apnea definitely has an effect.

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Mental Health Problems?

When sleep apnea goes untreated, it can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Over time, it can also cause cognitive decline. Both of these factors lead to worsening mental health problems. 

One study showed that individuals with sleep apnea were about 3 times more likely to have depression and anxiety when compared with those who do not have sleep apnea.4 

Is Sleep Apnea A Mental Health Disorder?

Sleep apnea is not considered a mental health disorder, but its effects on mental health are very real. 

Experts refer to sleep apnea as a sleep-related breathing disorder

Because there are different types of sleep apnea, you may hear it classified differently, including the following: 

  • Obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when there is a blockage in the airway.
  • Central sleep apnea. This occurs when the brain doesn’t properly control breathing. 

How Does Sleep Apnea Contribute to Mental Health Issues?

Many common symptoms of sleep apnea overlap with those of certain mental health conditions. For this reason, it can make it hard to distinguish between the two conditions. 

It may be hard for your doctor to determine if sleep apnea is directly causing your mental health issues aor exacerbating existing symptoms. 

Some symptoms that overlap with both types of conditions include5:

  • Tiredness during the day. People who have depression often feel the urge to sleep during the day. This is a common sign of sleep apnea as well.
  • Mood changes. People with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions might have erratic moods that change frequently, as do those with sleep apnea.
  • Brain dysfunction. Sleep apnea causes changes in brain chemicals and other neurological symptoms like memory issues and learning challenges. 
  • Insomnia. People with mental health conditions tend to struggle with sleep issues like insomnia. Sleep apnea also causes insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns.

Who Does Sleep Apnea Affect?

Certain risk factors make you more likely to be diagnosed with sleep apnea.5 

  • You’re more likely to develop sleep apnea as you get older.
  • People who are obese or overweight have a much higher likelihood of developing sleep apnea.
  • Sleep apnea is more common in people of Black, Hispanic, or Asian descent.
  • Taking opioid medications makes you more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.
  • Being over the age of 60 makes sleep apnea more likely.
  • People with certain heart conditions (like congestive heart failure) are more likely to have sleep apnea.

The Surprising Impact of Sleep Apnea on Mental Wellness

Sleep is essential for mental wellness for several reasons.

  • Sleep helps us with emotional resilience and cognitive function. During sleep, your brain processes emotions and consolidates emotional memories, which allows you to better regulate your emotions during your waking hours.6 
  • When you’re sleep deprived, you are more emotionally sensitive, making it harder to deal with stressful situations and increasing feelings of irritability and reactivity. 
  • Because sleep also influences your cognitive function, it helps you with memory consolidation and learning new things. Being well-rested can help you perform better at work, leading to a sense of accomplishment and relief after a long day rather than the fatigue and stress of falling behind. 

Diagnosing and Treating Sleep Apnea: The Road to Improved Mental Health

Because sleep is vital for your overall health, it is important to identify and treat conditions like sleep apnea promptly. Getting a handle on sleep apnea can help you rest peacefully throughout the night and feel your absolute best. 

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

To determine if you have sleep apnea and need further diagnostic testing, you’ll first want to become aware of some of the most common symptoms5:

  • Snoring
  • Feeling tired during the day
  • Waking up frequently throughout the night

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

If your provider suspects you have sleep apnea, they’ll likely recommend an overnight sleep study. This involves sleeping at a medical facility where your brain waves, breathing, heart rate, and oxygen levels are monitored throughout the night. This is the best way to confirm sleep apnea. 

Home sleep apnea tests are possible, but they are not as accurate. And sometimes, an overnight sleep study will still be recommended to confirm the diagnosis. 

Treating Sleep Apnea

There are many different approaches to treating sleep apnea depending on the cause and the type of sleep apnea you have. Sleep apnea treatments have two main categories: lifestyle changes and medical treatments. 

Lifestyle changes are a more conservative approach that can improve sleep apnea symptoms and potentially even treat it entirely. Examples include: 

  • Losing excess weight
  • Sleeping in certain positions, such as propping yourself up or avoiding laying flat on your back
  • Treating underlying medical conditions like congestive heart failure
  • Ceasing the use of opioids

If lifestyle adjustments do not improve symptoms of sleep apnea, then your doctor may recommend medical treatment

The most common medical treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. This therapy involves wearing a face mask while you sleep that is hooked up to a machine. It continuously sends pressurized air into your lungs to help keep your airway open and prevent sleep apnea from occurring. 

CPAP machines are effective, but they have some drawbacks. Some people find the mask uncomfortable, making it difficult to stick to the treatment. 

Some patients can also find relief using a mouth guard, a smaller, more conservative alternative to CPAP. 

The Importance of a Multidisciplinary Approach

If you struggle with sleep apnea, you’ll want to work with your doctor to find a solution. It is equally important to seek professional treatment for any mental health issues that your sleep apnea is causing or exacerbating. 

Takeaway

Sleep apnea goes beyond just snoring at night. Untreated sleep apnea can seriously impact on your mental health and overall wellness. 

Awareness of the importance of treating this condition is an essential first step. Luckily, there are a variety of treatment solutions available for sleep apnea. Talk with your doctor about your options.

Sources

  1. Santilli M, Manciocchi E, D’Addazio G, et al. Prevalence of Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome: A Single-Center Retrospective Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(19):10277. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph181910277
  2. Sleep apnea takes a toll on brain function. UCLA. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/sleep-apnea-takes-a-toll-on-brain-function#:~:text=They%20found%20that%20people%20with
  3. Patel AK, Araujo JF. Physiology, Sleep Stages. Nih.gov. Published October 27, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132/
  4. Kaufmann CN, Susukida R, Depp CA. Sleep apnea, psychopathology, and mental health care. Sleep Health. 2017;3(4):244-249. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2017.04.003
  5. Cleveland Clinic. Sleep Apnea. Cleveland Clinic. Published March 3, 2020. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8718-sleep-apnea
  6. Vandekerckhove M, Wang Y. Emotion, emotion regulation and sleep: An intimate relationship. AIMS Neuroscience. 2017;5(1):1-17. doi:https://doi.org/10.3934/Neuroscience.2018.1.1

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