Learn why you should start seeing sleep apnea as a problem and how to avoid or improve it.

According to the NSF, National Sleep Foundation, over 18 million adult people in the United States are suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, and most of them are not even aware that they have the most common sleep-disordered breathing.

While we sleep, our throat muscles relax and allow the airway to collapse or become blocked by the tongue. As a result, the airflow can stop for even ten seconds, alerting the brain to react by waking you up and gasping for air, or snorting and going back to sleep. You can do this hundreds of times per night and not be aware of it.

According to the director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research within the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Michael Twery, this can harm your health.

If sleep apnea is left untreated, it can lead to memory loss, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, stroke, heart disease, parasomnias, obesity, etc. Researchers have found a link between the constant drops in blood oxygen levels, sleep apnea, and premature death.

The past resident of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Dr. Alex Chediak, warns that the ensuing daytime sleepiness may turn into a public health hazard if you’re an airline pilot or a truck driver behind the wheel of 16-wheel vehicles.

Twery says it may be a good idea to consult a doctor if you’re snoring loudly or feeling tired even after a good night’s rest. This condition is not detected by a blood test, but things you can tell your doctor. If you’re at risk of sleep apnea, you may be referred to a sleep specialist to determine if you have obstructive sleep apnea. Home testing may also be an option.

Chediak explains the treatment options which can include CPAP, or a continuous positive airway pressure, a machine that keeps the airway open by creating a column of air, a surgery or oral device. 

Here’s what can aggravate obstructive sleep apnea or increase your risk according to sleep doctors.

Weight Gain

The director of the OHSU Sleep Medicine Program in Portland, Oregon, Dr. Asha Singh, says that obesity is the main factor that contributes to this nighttime breathing disorder. Tissues in and around the airway can become bulk up by excess weight, increasing the risk of airway collapse since muscles relax while we sleep, explains Chediak.

In the same way, the neck of obese people is usually thicker, so that can also be a factor, according to the sleep medicine specialist with Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, Dr. David Schulman. The condition is more common in overweight people, although it can still affect thin people, says NHLBI.

The member of the faculty at the University of Chicago’s Sleep Disorders Center and an assistant professor of medicine at the university, Dr. Amy Guralnick says that two people can have the same body mass index and the same weight, but only one of them may have sleep apnea. However, if a person with sleep apnea gains weight, their condition will certainly get worse, Guralnick explains.

Unfortunately, the condition may also contribute to weight gain.  Experts suggest that sleep apnea may cause cravings for unhealthy foods. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published a study which shows that women with severe forms of sleep apnea are more likely to eat unhealthy foods than people with mild cases or those unaffected. What’s more, the hallmark of the disorder – sleep deprivation tends to tinker with hormones that are responsible for appetite suppression, Chediak explains.

If weight is the root cause of sleep apnea, losing excess pounds may eliminate or alleviate the condition. Weight loss surgery has been shown to alleviate the condition of morbidly obese people. However, Chediak reminds us that there’s no compelling evidence that treating the condition will cause weight loss.


According to the sleep specialist and chair of otolaryngology at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Dr. Kathleen Yaremchuk, alcohol can relax muscles, including throat and tongue muscles. This, in turn, increases the risk of airway obstruction during sleep. Even though the effect of alcohol disappears as it clears the body throughout the night, limiting or avoiding it may help.


Chediak says that prescription medication can cause a further setback. Taking muscle relaxants may lead to greater snoring and sleep apnea. Most sleeping medications cause relaxation of muscles, and sleeping pills can make it more difficult to awake from sleep. But, pain must be sharper and noise louder, so an episode of sleep apnea must last longer. That’s because the brain needs more respiratory compromise in order to wake up and restore normal breathing, Chediak says.

Experts warn that painkillers may also be problematic, especially opioids which can cause respiratory insufficiency and make breathing even more difficult for people with the condition. 

Other Medical Problems

High blood pressure and diabetes increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and sleep apnea. Singh says that about 30-40% of adults with high blood pressure have sleep apnea as well, especially those who don’t respond to hypertensive medication. This means that around 80% of people with drug-resistant hypertension have some sleep apnea. Treating sleep apnea is a proven way to reduce blood pressure.

When it comes to type 2 diabetes, Singhs says that seven out of ten people have obstructive sleep apnea as well. The severity of their sleep apnea directly affects their symptoms of diabetes. So, poor control of blood glucose is associated with severe sleep apnea.

Sleep Deprivation

As Schulman explains, the body needs the deepest kind of sleep when a person is not getting enough sleep, and it will launch into it to make up for the lack of sleep. However, sleep apnea aggravates during REM sleep or the deep-sleep period.

That’s because the body is most relaxed during this period. Therefore, making sure we get enough night’s sleep is essential. Lack of sleep can also be a result of sleep apnea, and that can create a vicious cycle.

Sleep Position

According to Schulman, sleeping on your side makes sleep apnea better while sleeping on your back makes it worse. The reason for that is because the tongue relaxes back further when you sleep on your back, thus worsening the condition.

SlumberBUMP and other positional therapy devices can help you avoid sleeping on your back and help with your sleep apnea treatment.


Smoking increases the risk of sleep apnea and compound breathing issues for people who already have the condition. It irritates the upper airway, the uvula, the throat, the tongue, and the soft palate, which can lead to swelling.

And if you need another reason to quit smoking, it’s the number one cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as a huge trigger of asthma symptoms, which causes inflammation and narrowing of one’s airways.


An anatomic abnormality may be the root cause for some people, such as a smaller-than-normal airway, a deviated septum, or enlarged tonsils. It’s connected to the area at the beginning of the throat and the back of the mouth. Even though this is often a problem for adults, it can also be for children who can have enlarged adenoids or enlarged tonsils. These things can raise the risk of sleep apnea, Guralnick says.