We hadn't done this before. Two of us – one from our hospital's sleep center and the other from our diabetes program – were both listening intently to a teleconference on sleep apnea and diabetes. What does one have to do with the other? Perhaps plenty, according to research in both fields.
Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, is characterized by disruptions in sleep caused by disordered breathing, explained sleep medicine physician Dr. Angela Hospenthal from the University of Texas Science Center. Symptoms include: loud snoring, waking up choking or gasping or with a dry mouth or sore throat, and being excessively tired during the day.
How do you know you have it? Spend the night in a sleep lab hooked up to electrodes to measure how you breathe. Lots of physiological things happen while sleep disordered people snore, said Hospenthal.
Oxygen and blood flow are reduced, blood pressure rises and heart irregularities occur. All in all, it's not a very restful sleep. And during waking hours, people with sleep apnea have more trouble concentrating and remembering things. My sleep center companion nodded knowingly.
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And what does that have to do with diabetes? Sleep apnea and diabetes are “linked” in several ways, we were told:
Belly fat is a risk for diabetes as well as sleep apnea. “Fat cells in the upper body (apple shapes) have different health effects than fat cells in the hips and thighs,” Hospenthal noted.
Insulin resistance syndrome — a condition common in people with diabetes — is also commonly found in people with OSA. When we don't breathe deeply enough, it increases hormones in the body that raise blood sugar levels and impair the body's ability to process excess blood sugar.
Neuropathy — nerve damage common in people with diabetes — is also prevalent in people with obstructive sleep apnea.
So, sleep apnea may lead to diabetes and diabetes may lead to sleep apnea. And interestingly, the treatment of one condition may improve the outcome of the other.
For example, one effective treatment for sleep apnea — Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP — may also help control blood sugar levels by helping get more oxygen to the body.