Sleep apnea is a respiratory problem that affects so much more than breathing. The stress on your body from apneic episodes can even increase your risk of death.
Snoring is not just annoying for bed partners; it can be deadly as well. Many cases of snoring are caused by sleep apnea, a disorder in which people struggle to breath and even stop breathing for short periods of time at night. Not only does this disrupt sleep, leaving people fatigued during the day, it has been shown to be a risk factor for a variety of diseases. New research suggests that it may lead to worse outcomes in cancer patients as well.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive apnea. In this disorder, tissue in the throat partially closes the windpipe, creating the sound we know as snoring. At times, it may close the windpipe entirely, causing patients to sputter and wake. This is an incredible stress on the body, creating periods with low or no oxygen while stimulating adrenaline and other ‘fight or flight’ hormones that increase blood pressure. This dangerous condition is very common, affecting around five percent of the population. It is more common in people who are overweight, aged or who have large tonsils and lymph nodes.
Although there are effective treatments for sleep apnea, many people do not realize that their snoring produces such a health risk, or how often they are waking at night because they don’t become fully conscious. Others view snoring as a normal part of life as people age. While sleep apnea is indeed normal for many people, it creates immense stress on organ systems and can have dire health consequences.
Cancer Outcomes and Oxygen Deprivation
The primary danger of sleep apnea is that it is creating oxygen deprivation on and off throughout the night. This is known to stress the cardiovascular system. A new study has found that it may contribute to cancer mortality as well. In this study, mice with tumors were periodically given low oxygen, similar to the conditions caused by nighttime apnea. These mice showed higher circulating levels of VEGF as well as more endothelial progenitor cells in the tumors.
What does this mean for human cancer patients? VEGF, or vascular endothelial growth factor, is a very important hormone in the development of cancer. Cancerous tumors need a steady supply of nutrients and oxygen to sustain fast growth. VEGF promotes the formation of new blood vessels that can give tumors what they need to grow and take over. This increased nutrition to cancerous cells leads to an increased risk of death from cancer rather than remission.
Circadian Rhythm and Health
Researchers in chronobiology and sleep medicine have long known that there is a link between a disrupted circadian rhythm and cancer risk due to an increase of oncogenic genes expressed while sleep deprived. This new study showing increased tumor growth presents a dire picture for people who are losing sleep due to sleep apnea. Not only are they more likely to develop cancer, heart disease, stroke and a variety of medical syndromes, they are more likely to have a higher mortality rate as a result of these diseases. Maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm and getting adequate sleep is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.
If you or a loved one has sleep apnea, medical science offers many treatments that can cure or minimize the effects of this health disorder. Lifestyle changes, a mouthpiece or a special machine called a CPAP worn at night all can stop the snoring and the hypoxia that characterize this disorder. Not only will you feel more rested and energetic, you will have much lower disease risk as well.
Sleep disorders can affect almost every part of a person’s life, from their daily existence to their risk of developing serious diseases. Getting the right amount and quality of sleep is essential to a healthy lifestyle. Luckily there are a variety of lifestyle measures and treatments that can help people to get the sleep they need for optimal health.