Imagine trying to hold your breath for 30 seconds at a time, every other minute, for the next 8 hours. That’s exactly what happens during the night to some people who have sleep apnea. It’s a condition that’s costing some 12-million Americans a good night’s sleep, and sleep apnea might do more than that. Some doctors say sleep apnea can play a role in everything from high blood pressure to heart problems. Now, there may be a link to diabetes.
Most of us put on something comfortable before we go to bed. Lou Flocken puts on an air flow mask. Lou has sleep apnea, and because he stops breathing several times an hour during the night, his doctor insists that he wear the mask to keep his airways open.
“They said I had 35 interruptions of my sleep per hour. So, that meant that I was never getting fully asleep as you need to, you know, you need to get into that deep sleep,” says Flocken.
Not getting that deep sleep may have landed Lou in deep trouble. Six months after he was diagnosed with sleep apnea, Lou wound up in the emergency room with heart problems.
It’s a connection that wouldn’t surprise Dr. Ulysses Magalang, a sleep expert with Ohio State University Medical Center. He says depriving your body of oxygen that often takes its toll. Those with sleep apnea may have a higher risk of stroke or heart disease. Now, doctors are looking for a possible link to diabetes.
“We do not know whether sleep apnea actually causes diabetes. What we do know is that patients with sleep apnea have an increased insulin resistance, which is a hallmark of patients with diabetes,” says Magalang.
Dr. Magalang says obesity is a common risk factor for both diabetes and sleep apnea, and fat cells seem to function similarly in both. Studies have shown that wearing airflow masks at night can prevent problems with those fat cells. The problem is, getting patients to wear them.
“At best, about 6 out of 10 people will be compliant with this machine long term. Therefore, we need new treatment options,” says Magalang.
Doctors are just now looking into any possible link between diabetes and sleep apnea. They won’t know for some time if there is one. Other than wearing a mask to treat sleep apnea, some patients undergo surgery to reshape the soft tissue in the back of their throat so they can breathe easier at night.