Sleep is restorative for the body and mind. But if you’re among the more than 18 million Americans who have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), you’re probably not getting the amount of sleep that you need. And without it, your risk of heart complications can increase: A study of 3,000 adults determined that those who slept fewer than six hours a night had double the risk of stroke or heart attack as others who slept up to eight hours, possibly because too little sleep exacerbates other health conditions, including high blood pressure. OSA plays a role in shaping your heart health in the following ways:
OSA causes restricted breathing.
Loud snoring is commonly associated with sleep apnea, caused by a blockage in the airway that compromises breathing. Those with OSA tend to sleep with an open mouth, and they sometimes cease breathing before gasping to take in air again. When breathing is restricted, oxygen levels in the body can dip—and it’s these drops that may lead to an increase in blood pressure and stress on the cardiovascular system.
Low oxygen levels signal blood pressure to rise.
As oxygen levels fall, receptors in the brain are triggered. The result: Your brain sends a message to the blood vessels to increase the available oxygen to the heart and brain so the body can keep functioning. This increase in blood flow puts pressure on the blood vessels’ walls, elevating levels to higher than normal. For this reason, if you have OSA, your risk of high blood pressure—also called hypertension—is greater. In its most serious form, this condition can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Unlike in cases of high blood pressure that are caused by diet or a person’s weight, simply making lifestyle changes cannot solve high blood pressure triggered by sleep apnea without addressing the root cause. Talk with your doctor about ways to treat OSA and return your blood pressure to healthy levels.