Snoring is a big inconvenience to anyone who has to listen to it night after night. But did you know that snoring could actually be trying to tell you something? If you or a loved one snores a lot, you might have a condition known as sleep apnea.
Once you understand how snoring and sleep apnea can put you at risk for heart disease, you’ll want to get more information. Stopping both is your best bet to get better rest and prevent your chances of heart attack or stroke.
Snoring and Heart Disease
Snoring is about as common as getting a cold during the winter. If you don’t have it, you know someone who does. Experts estimate that as many as two in five men or one in four women snore on a regular basis. It has a variety of potential causes, such as:
- Poor sleep
- Stuffy nose
- Medications or alcohol
- Sleep breathing disorders such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea
- Getting older
- Gaining weight
Snoring is annoying, particularly to the people who have to listen to it while they are also trying to sleep. It is also a sign of other sleep problems that might need your attention. Snoring may reflect a disruption in your sleep pattern. Over time, poor sleep and snoring are linked with chronic health conditions like heart disease. If you or a loved one is a regular snorer, you may want to check on the status of your heart health. This is particularly true if you have problems with sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
As you can probably imagine, not breathing during the night is a major culprit of both snoring and heart concerns. When it happens all the time, this condition is called Obstructive Sleep Apnea. It’s more common than you think. As you sleep, you need an open airway in which to breathe. For many different reasons, your airway might get blocked during the night. Common causes of OSA include:
- Smaller airways due to genetics
- Low muscle tone in your mouth or neck
- Chronic conditions that restrict the airways, like allergies
- Alcohol or drugs that artificially relax your muscles
- Smoking or taking medications that inflame your throat and sinuses
When you have a bad cold, you may notice that you wake up more frequently so that you can find a spot where you can breathe more clearly. This is much like OSA, only OSA tends to fall under the radar. When your airway becomes blocked, even partially, your blood oxygen level drops. After about 10 seconds of that, your body triggers your brain to wake you up. How often this happens determines the level of apnea you have. Experts classify the degree of OSA based on the number of apneas or hypopneas (partial obstruction) per hour:
- Mild OSA: More than 5 but less than 15 events per hour
- Moderate OSA: 15-30
- Severe OSA: Greater than 30
Think about this in real time. If you have mild OSA, your body is losing oxygen as frequently as every four minutes. People with severe OSA might be waking up every minute to breathe, only to fall back to sleep and repeat the cycle. This distinction is important to keep in mind. Researchers are finding links between the severity of a person’s OSA and their risk of developing heart problems as a result.
Blood Pressure During Sleep
In order to see the connection between OSA and heart disease, you need to understand how it starts. Kick back and imagine what sleep apnea episodes feel like. The flow of air slows or stops completely. Within a few seconds, the brain realizes that it is losing oxygen. It sends a flood of adrenaline to the body to force it awake. This causes a temporary increase in blood pressure as the body regulates the ability to get oxygen to the heart and brain. It sounds distressing, but most people don’t notice it until someone else points it out. It starts and ends so quickly that it may not catch their attention until it is particularly severe.
The rapid progression of the apnea event may make it seem like it is no big deal, but it can pose problems for blood pressure. Most people experience a drop in blood pressure as they sleep. People with OSA might experience the reverse. This can even become a sign of OSA that a doctor could pick up during a sleep study. Sleep apnea patients may have blood pressure that is 10-20% higher when they are asleep than when they are awake.
Sleep Apnea’s Effect on the Body
If you have ever had to hold your breath without breathing deeply in advance, you can see how quickly this can turn into an issue. Without a proper diagnosis and treatment, OSA can start to create several effects that you will notice:
- Difficulty concentrating on important things
- Adrenaline spikes that can increase stress and anxiety
These risks aren’t just happening at night, either. As your body keeps pushing the adrenaline to wake you up, your adrenaline levels can remain at higher levels during the day. The longer you go without addressing the issue, the greater the chance you will end up with heart disease, too.
How Sleep Apnea Can Damage the Heart
Lots of people have moments during the day or night in which their blood pressure might increase. If this rise happens often enough, it can start to bleed into other aspects of a person’s health. The most obvious is chronic hypertension. People with a higher number of apnea events at night are more likely to develop high blood pressure at all times instead of confining it to the sleeping hours. Researchers know that high blood pressure can lead to other heart problems, such as:
- Heart attack
- Congestive heart failure
OSA creates a kind of one-two punch that makes all of these terrible effects that much more likely. First, the lack of oxygen forces the body to narrow the blood vessels to push oxygen to the brain. Second, the sleep interruption increases the accumulation of plaque in the arteries, which hardens them. Restricting blood flow through your arteries can result in a heart attack or stroke. These conditions may appear to be rare, but they are not. In fact, about 720,000 Americans have a heart attack each year, and nearly 800,000 have a stroke. Together, these two kill about 500,000 people per year in the U.S.
Treating Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease
If you have sleep apnea, how you treat it depends on the severity of the condition. Some people who have mild OSA may just need to focus on improving their airway, through:
- Avoiding or changing medications that relax muscles
- Cutting back on alcohol and smoking
- Eating a healthy diet
- Using a sleep apnea mouthpiece to hold the tongue away from the throat
Patients with more severe OSA may also need to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which forces air into the mouth and nose to keep the airway open.
Since OSA is such a notable risk factor for heart disease, people with heart problems should get an evaluation for sleep apnea to help them get this potential cause under control. Otherwise, they can manage their heart disease by:
- Making Lifestyle Changes: Reducing sodium intake, stopping smoking and drinking alcohol, getting at least 30 minutes of exercise per day.
- Regular Monitoring: Frequent checkups with a qualified doctor help people stay on top of their condition.
- Taking Medications: Certain drugs can reduce plaque or lower blood pressure to safer levels.
- Medical Procedures: As a last effort to minimize the chance of heart attack or stroke, people may need surgery. There are many possible procedures, such as the implantation of a stent to improve blood flow or the placement of an artificial pacemaker.
It turns out that snoring is a big deal for a person’s health, especially if it’s caused by sleep apnea. Fortunately, knowing more about these conditions, and how they lead to heart disease, can give you the determination to get them under control for good. The dental sleep medicine experts at Premier Sleep Associates are here to help. To schedule a consultation, contact us at (425) 698-1732.