Sleep apnea is a medical condition wherein the sufferer’s breathing is interrupted at various points during sleep due to an obstruction in the airway or the failure of the brain to signal the body to breathe. It is a serious issue on its own, because it can cause a lack of oxygen to the brain and body and even result in death if the sleeper does not resume breathing soon enough. It is also easily left undiagnosed because the patient isn’t awake to hear their snoring or feel themselves stop breathing. But did you know your sleep apnea may also be trying to tell you something about the health of other areas of your body? Some of the surprising health issues linked to sleep apnea include depression, stroke, high blood pressure, heart failure, headaches, worsening ADHD, and—now—diabetes.
New research has shown sleep apnea may be linked to an increased risk of insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and type 2 diabetes. In a recent study which took over a decade to complete, 1,453 non-diabetic people with an average age of 63 participated in sleep studies in their own homes. They were placed into four categories: normal sleepers, mild sleep apnea, moderate sleep apnea, and severe sleep apnea. At the end of the study, those with severe sleep apnea were 70% more likely to have developed type 2 diabetes than those with normal breathing patterns during sleep.
A plethora of similar studies have already been conducted to assess the link between sleep apnea and diabetes that show similar results, and more are surely coming. Other studies have provided evidence that not just sleep apnea but a wide variety of sleep issues such as sleep duration, daytime napping, sleep disruption, and simply not getting enough sleep could also contribute to the development of insulin resistance and diabetes.
Paul E. Peppard, a sleep disorder researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, says:
These findings underscore the need to prevent sleep apnea and screen for sleep apnea in patients particularly at risk for developing diabetes—e.g., overweight and physically inactive people. Behaviors such as healthy weight maintenance and reducing time in sedentary activities would simultaneously reduce the risk [of] developing sleep apnea and diabetes.
More studies need to be performed to prove the validity of these results, but this new information could change the way we treat sleep issues and other health concerns in the future. Already, the link is strong enough that the International Diabetes Federation recommends that patients with either sleep apnea or diabetes be tested for the other condition. We hope that sleep apnea diagnoses may lead to more diabetes testing, earlier diabetes diagnoses, and earlier diabetes treatment. Perhaps sleep apnea tests in general will also become more mainstream as more links between this condition and other health issues are discovered.
If you’re concerned you may have sleep apnea or that your sleep apnea may be contributing to other health issues, ask your doctor about your risk level and which tests may be right for you.
Happily, sleep patterns aren’t the be-all and end-all of diabetes risk. There are various other factors that contribute to health problems like diabetes, and you can do something about some of them! If you’d like to know more, click to read about how your neighborhood’s “walkability” could be influencing your diabetes risk.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?