Does Sleep Apnea Affect Your Mental Health?

woman with long hair sitting in a park and rubbing her temples

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder that’s surprisingly common. Despite this, many people with sleep apnea don’t realize they have it even though they feel fatigued constantly. 

Because the disturbances occur during sleep, it’s usually a loved one who notices the snoring, gasping for air, and pauses in breathing, which are common indications of the disorder. Dentists like Dr. Chad Brown also alert patients who unknowingly have OSA that there may be an issue, as the disorder is discovered in the mouth and throat.

Dentists can see signs of OSA that may cause your airway to become blocked when you’re asleep, preventing the regular and essential flow of air.

When you can’t breathe, you’ll briefly wake up to resume normal airflow. People with OSA can wake up hundreds of times every night without realizing it. These lapses in sleep are so short, you may not even be fully conscious. But they’re enough to interrupt your quality of sleep.

The Effects of Sleep on Your Body

woman's legs wearing capri pants and running shoes putting her hands on her knees after working out outsideWe all know that sleep is essential for daily functions, even if science can’t pinpoint exactly why. Most of us have spent at least one night of our lives tossing and turning restlessly, then trying to use coffee to fend off the exhaustion. But a consistent lack of sleep can do more than just make you feel tired.

Issues arise if you don’t reach the REM stage of sleep, the most important phase. Though all stages of sleep are necessary, your brain is highly active during REM sleep as it performs important mental processes.

Because a lack of sleep can have such detrimental effects on your body, Dr. Scott Clinton, a sleep apnea specialist, urges at-risk people to seek a diagnosis and treatment. Even if you don’t have sleep apnea, there’s likely something going on that a doctor can help you with.

Health Conditions

Sleep deprivation can affect your physical health in severe ways. A constant loss of sleep leads to a higher risk of heart problems, stroke, and diabetes. 

Losing sleep also makes your immune system more vulnerable and you may have difficulty fighting off illnesses. Without these defenses, your body can’t protect itself effectively against viruses, such as the flu or the common cold.

Reaction Time

Getting enough sleep also helps your reaction time to stay quick, which can be the difference between a close call on the drive to work and a life-changing car accident. Though falling asleep at the wheel is a risk, simply driving while drowsy can be incredibly dangerous.

In fact, driving drowsy can be eerily similar to driving drunk. According to a study by AAA, missing just a couple hours of shut-eye can make you just as hazardous on the road as a drunk driver.

The Relationship Between Sleep & Mental Health

A lack of sleep can also affect your mental health. People who lose sleep often are more likely to develop depression and anxiety. Depression, in turn, can affect your ability to get a peaceful night’s sleep. Together, these disorders create a vicious circle.

Difficulty Concentrating

Sleep deprivation makes it hard for you to focus or pay attention, so any processes that require complex thought or detail-driven attention become more difficult for you to perform. It can also be a struggle to take in new information, harming your ability to learn.

Emotion Regulation

During REM sleep, emotion-regulating chemicals are released. These chemicals help you to remain calm and collected as you go about your daily life.

If you don’t reach REM due to consistent sleep interruptions, you may have more trouble staying in control of your emotions throughout the day.

Memory Problems

Less sleep can also impair your memory, dulling your mind. This can lead to issues spending time with loved ones as well as hampering your ability to take on everything life throws at you. 

It can even impair your ability to be productive at work, endangering your livelihood. People with OSA are more likely than their peers to suffer from multiple consecutive job losses.

Poor Judgement

Studies have shown that the longer you suffer from a lack of sleep, the more you’ll think you’ve adjusted to it. People who consistently got less than 6 hours of sleep started to believe they were performing adequately, having gotten used to reduced sleep — but they weren’t.

Sleep Apnea Deprives You

Obstructive sleep apnea affects your entire life by disrupting your ability to sleep soundly throughout the night. People with OSA are at risk for all the conditions associated with sleep loss, both physical and mental.

If you’re concerned about sleep apnea in your life, the first step you can take is to seek a diagnosis. This is done through a sleep test, where doctors can measure the quantity and quality of your sleep. 

Sleep studies can be done at a sleep clinic or using an at-home test from a doctor. To initiate the process, speak to your physician about your potential sleep apnea symptoms and they can guide you from there.

Treatment: A Ray of Hope

two female friends sitting outside drinking coffee and laughingOnce you’ve received a diagnosis from a doctor, you’ll be able to seek an effective treatment solution. Though the relationship between mental health and sleep apnea can be harmful, there is a bright side.

The relationship between sleep apnea and mental health can be used to improve your health. Treatment for sleep apnea is shown to not only cure symptoms of OSA but also alleviates symptoms of associated mental health issues.

There are several treatment options for OSA. The most commonly prescribed treatment is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. These machines ensure your airway stays open throughout the night by pushing air to your lungs.

Another treatment option, popular due to its compact size and easy use, is a custom oral appliance. These appliances, provided by dentists like Dr. Charles Schumacher, look like sports mouthguards but they’re designed to keep your airway open so you can breathe — and sleep.