Sleep apnea and autoimmune diseases: How are they connected?

Sleep apnea and autoimmune diseases: How are they connected?

Written by Erika Watts on November 20, 2020 — Fact checked by Harriet Pike, Ph.D.

In a new study, researchers investigated inflammatory cytokines that are associated with both obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and autoimmune diseases. They found that cytokine levels are abnormal in people with untreated OSA.


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It is impossible to overstate the importance of a good night’s sleep. Getting the right amount of sleep can lower the risk of weight gain, reduce inflammation, improve productivity, and much more.

Many people struggle to get enough rest each night. For some, this is due to sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea.

OSA was the focus of a new study, which appears in the journal Clinical Immunology. Researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens looked at the connection between untreated OSA and autoimmune diseases.

Sleep apnea

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sleep apnea occurs “when the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow.”

A person with sleep apnea may momentarily stop breathing multiple times per hour while sleeping.

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • snoring
  • daytime sleepiness
  • gasping for breath while asleep
  • sexual dysfunction

Various factors can contribute to a person developing OSA. These include obesity, enlarged tonsils, and heart or kidney failure.

Doctors often treat sleep apnea with airway therapy, using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP machines keep the upper airway from becoming blocked during sleep. Some people with OSA use mouthguards to help keep their airways open.

OSA can increase the risk of serious medical problems. The American Sleep Apnea Association believe that at least 38,000 people die each year from heart issues associated with sleep apnea.

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