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What Happens to Your Body When You Don’t Treat Sleep Apnea?

Understand How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Body and Why It's Important to Get Treatment.

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Dayton Respiratory Center

Apr 26 2022

6 mins read

Snoring is often considered normal. You might think that the only side effect of snoring is that it affects your partner’s sleep, but it may signal a disorder—sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is the underlying cause of many ailments. It's a condition of discontinuous or paused breathing at night that hinders your sleep. This interrupted breathing cuts the oxygen supply to your body, causing carbon dioxide to build up, negatively affecting the functioning of different organs.

In the United States, thousands of people die each year of complications related to sleep apnea. It's important to take sleep apnea seriously and understand what happens to your body when you don’t treat it.

Men are more prone to sleep apnea than women. This difference arises due to variations in their fat deposition, upper airway shape, and sex hormones.

However, post-menopausal women have an increased risk of sleep apnea because of increased belly fat. Sleep apnea can also affect children between 2 and 8 years.

How Do I Know If I Have Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that can go unnoticed. People with sleep apnea don't get treatment either because they do not know about the condition or its effects.

So, how do you know if you have sleep apnea?

Watch for the following symptoms to check if you or someone in your family suffers from sleep apnea.

  • Feeling drowsy during the day
  • Feeling tired 
  • Headaches
  • Snoring
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling irritable
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Gasping for air or choking in between sleep
  • Urinating frequently at night-time

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea|Source: ResMed

How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Your Body?

Sleep apnea disrupts the oxygen supply to your body.

The cells in your body require a continuous supply of oxygen for optimum functioning. When this oxygen supply pauses at intervals—a condition called hypoxia—it leads to various changes that adversely affect you.

This can result in the following:

Heart problems—The heart senses the oxygen deficiency due to interrupted breathing and beats faster to meet the body's oxygen requirement. The increased heart rate causes high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, and increased blood volume. This ultimately may lead to hypertension, arrhythmia, and heart attack.

Diabetes—Sleep apnea can deteriorate a diabetic condition. It causes stress due to hypoxia. Hypoxia increases insulin resistance (cells stop responding to insulin) which interferes with glucose metabolism and spikes the level of glucose in the blood (glucose intolerance).

Also, sleep-apnea-induced hypertension leads to inflammation throughout the body, which affects the pancreas, developing type-2 diabetes.

Liver disease—Studies have found that sleep apnea can aggravate liver diseases, which result from fat deposition in the liver.

It can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or its more serious condition—nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.  

HeartburnAcid reflux, which causes heartburn, can be due to sleep apnea. The intermittent pauses in respiration due to sleep apnea can affect lung pressure. This pressure change causes the muscles at the end of the esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) to open and stomach acid to enter the esophagus (acid reflux), which leads to heartburn.

Acid Reflux|Source: TheAcidReflux

Chronic acid reflux, also known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), is present in 60% of people suffering from sleep apnea. GERD causes stomach acid to enter the esophagus, irritating it and leading to vomiting and breathing problems.

Weight gain—While sleep apnea can cause weight gain, weight gain can also contribute to sleep apnea. 

Lack of quality sleep makes you feel tired and can cause hormonal imbalance.

Sleep apnea affects the hormones leptin and ghrelin. While leptin helps to maintain a balance between hunger and metabolism, ghrelin induces hunger. An imbalance in these hormones increases hunger and thereby causes weight gain.

When you’re tired, you tend to be more sedentary and skip your exercise, which indirectly leads to weight gain. A sedentary lifestyle also reduces metabolism, again contributing to weight gain.

Inflammation—Hypoxia due to sleep apnea results in an increased heart rate and blood pressure. This increased blood pressure causes stress which triggers inflammation in the body. 

Chronic inflammation can eventually lead to plaque build-up in the arteries. Plaques are deposits of fat, cholesterol or other substances and can sometimes harden. Increased plaque build-up can obstruct the arteries increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. 

CancerStudies show that sleep apnea increases the risk of cancer. Hypoxia, caused by fragmented breathing, increases stress and inflammation in the body that promotes tumor growth.  

Another study found that people with severe sleep apnea had a 65% greater risk of developing cancer.

Mental Health—Sleep apnea affects your mental health in profound ways. Quality sleep is essential for proper brain functioning. Being sleep-deprived can cause stress, anxiety, depression, and memory loss.

Glutamate and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) are the two hormones that regulate stress and keep you calm. Hormonal imbalance due to sleep apnea increases the level of glutamate and lowers the level of GABA, which affects proper brain function, increasing stress.

Infertility—One study shows that sleep apnea reduces male fertility in middle-aged men due to hypoxia-induced stress. Sleep apnea is also one of the causes of erectile dysfunction.

What Happens if You Don't Treat Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is dangerous if left untreated since it can lead to other complications.

For example, untreated sleep apnea slows your recovery after a stroke. It can cause reduced mobility and increase the risk of recurrent strokes.

Sleep apnea can also pose a threat during surgery that requires general anaesthesia or sedation after the procedure. Your anesthesiologist can take precautionary measures and prevent complications if you inform him, but for that, you need to diagnose the condition. 

Also, if you leave sleep apnea untreated, it can lead to complications during pregnancy. Hypertension, a result of sleep apnea, can cause gestational diabetes and even preeclampsia, which can be very harmful to both baby and mother.

Headaches, irritability, tiredness, and daytime sleeping can be due to sleep apnea, making you less productive at your workplace. Daytime sleepiness is a significant contributor to road accidents and other injuries.

Sleep apnea increases the risk of cancer and promotes tumor growth. It also increases the risk of a blood clot and cell damage, which can ultimately lead to death. 


Proper diagnosis and treatment can help overcome many complications related to sleep apnea. With proper treatment, many of the negative health effects of sleep apnea can be prevented or even reversed.

It's advisable to undergo timely treatment for sleep apnea. Sleep physicians and ENT physicians are specially trained to identify sleep apnea and its associated complications. Getting a handle on your sleep apnea sooner rather than later will improve your overall health and almost certainly extend your life.

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