Do you have a hard time falling and/or staying asleep? Do you constantly wake up too early and feel tired when you do? Insomnia, from mild to extreme cases, is a very common issue. We often attribute it to life stress, environmental factors or an interference in sleep schedule. But, what if your insomnia is actually being caused by something more?
At the Rowe Neurology Institute (RNI) in Kansas City, KS we conducted a survey of over 380 patients who had complained about experiencing chronic insomnia. After completing a Polysomnogram PSG (a sleep study used to diagnose sleep disorders), 76% of the patients were found to be suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). This was a cause for concern for the neurologists at RNI as the patients were being treated with insomnia related medications instead of addressing the root cause of the issue — Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).
But, how does Obstructive Sleep Apnea cause Insomnia?
Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common form of apnea and occurs when the upper airway becomes narrowed or blocked while you are asleep, causing your breath to pause or decrease. This repeatedly interrupts your breathing while you sleep, creating oxygen deficits and temporary activation of your brain, sometimes lasting only a few seconds. These are called arousals. This in turn interferes with your sleep by bringing you into a lighter sleep state and often times waking you up in order to restore normal breathing. In severe cases, the pauses in your breathing and arousal from sleep can occur as often as once per minute, which constantly wakes up and leaves you mentally and physically exhausted.
Sleep Apnea Does More Than Make You Tired
If you are suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), you are not alone. In fact, 9% of adult females and a remarkable 24% of adult males experience sleep apnea. Unfortunately, many who suffer from sleep disordered breathing are mistakenly being treated with insomnia medications, which does not treat the real problem. If your Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is left untreated, insomnia could be just one of many serious health complications you are at risk for.
Neurons based in your brainstem are responsible for regulating your body’s cardiovascular system and maintaining a low resting heart rate. According to a study published in the Journal of Physiology, people who suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) frequently experience a diminishing of this neural activity. As a result, these individuals are at a higher risk of developing an elevated heart rate and high blood pressure, as well as of experiencing adverse cardiovascular events.
In the study, researchers used rats as their test subjects and replicated Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) conditions over a four-week period. During this time, they monitored the synaptic activity of the parasympathetic neurons that control heart rate, as well as recorded changes in the rats’ blood pressure and heart rate.
In summarizing the researchers’ findings, the study leader, Dr. David Mendelowitz of the George Washington University USA, explains that the inhibition of brainstem neurons responsible for maintaining a low resting heart rate can lead to a sustained dulling of cardiovascular reflexes. This means that in the long-term, untreated Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) may increase your risk of developing a irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure.
While the present study sheds light on some of the serious health complications you may experience if you are suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), this research also gives new hope to both doctors and patients seeking to mitigate the long-term effects of sleep apnea, and perhaps especially the established correlation between sleep disorders and stroke.
Utilizing these findings as a foundation, future research in this area will likely focus on exploring possible approaches to the restoration of functionality among the neurons responsible for maintaining heart rate with the aim of reducing the risks of hypertension, elevated heart rate, arrhythmias, and other conditions that accompany Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).
Diagnosing Your Sleep Apnea
Unfortunately, the correlation between insomnia and Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is still something that many health care physicians are not aware of. We are so used to blaming insomnia on a psychological condition, that there’s a good chance that if you’ve sought out treatment for your sleep problems, your Obstructive Sleep Apnea was not diagnosed. (This confusion amongst primary care physicians was identified and further explained by a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings on the Pharmacotherapy Failure in Chronic Insomnia Patients.)
A red flag that you are suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is if you are currently taking any medications or sleep aids for your insomnia and they’re not working. Other symptoms include dry mouth, morning headaches, frequent urination during the night (nocturia) and snoring.
If you think you may have Obstructive Sleep Apnea, you should get a sleep test at a certified sleep center. This will help you identify and treat the real cause of your insomnia and get you back on the road to a good night’s sleep.
Learn more about the causes of long-term chronic insomnia
Wiley. (2014, May 16). Interrupted breathing during sleep affects brain neurons necessary to regulate heart rate. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 5, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140516092124.htm
- Jhansi Dyavanapalli, Heather Jameson, Olga Dergacheva, Vivek Jain, Mona Alhusayyen, and David Mendelowitz. Chronic intermittent hypoxia?hypercapnia blunts heart rate responses and alters neurotransmission to cardiac vagal neurons. The Journal of Physiology, May 2014 DOI: 10.1113/jphysiol.2014.273482