It’s the wake-up call you weren’t expecting.

Sleep apnea, or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), can impact mental health in a variety of ways:

OSA is a sleep disorder that causes your breathing to be suspended while you sleep.

“Their airway actually closes off many times throughout the night,” explains sleep psychologist Dan Ford, the founder of the Better Sleep Clinic. “Usually, the tongue falls toward the back of the throat, which triggers the brain to either fully wake itself up or go into a state of very light sleep.”

Ford continues, “As a result, someone with OSA may be sleeping a full 8 hours, but because the person’s airway is repeatedly closing off through the night, the quality of the sleep may be so impaired that the person wakes up totally unrefreshed.”

In other words, you might be woken up several times throughout the night when your body needs to take a breath, and you might not even realize it.

According to a 2015 review of sleep apnea studies, sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that impacts 22% of men and 17% of women on average.

OSA causes and risk factors

Like many disorders in the health and wellness field, there are contributing factors and lifestyle behaviors that can put you at a higher risk of developing sleep apnea. These include:

  • . This complication may also increase the possibility of experiencing OSA later in life.
  • Frequent drinking and smoking. Both of these activities can contribute to worsening OSA. Alcohol may cause the muscles around your airways to relax and close off while you sleep, and smoking can cause inflammation in your airways, which restricts the flow of air through them.
  • Limited physical activity. This has been cited as one of the risk factors for OSA in addition to obesity.
  • Age. Although young people can develop sleep apnea, your risk and the severity of the condition increases as you age.

One of the strongest links to sleep apnea is genetics. Even the genes that structure the shape of your face and skull can lead to sleep apnea later in life.

There’s a lot of discussion about the physical health issues that stem from untreated sleep apnea, like an increased chance of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, and heart failure. But the mental health effects of OSA don’t always receive as much attention.

In fact, a 2017 study showed a direct link between having sleep apnea and increased odds of having a mental health issue. Anxiety was the most common mental health condition linked to OSA. One of the most concerning symptoms was an increase in thoughts of suicide.

Many people with sleep apnea don’t realize they have an issue because they aren’t looking for the effects of OSA in their daily lives.

As mentioned, if you drink alcohol or smoke regularly, you might want to do a body scan or ask someone you live with if they’ve noticed any irregularities in your sleep. Here are some symptoms of sleep apnea that you, or someone you live with, may notice:

  • snoring loudly or seeming to stop breathing for spurts throughout sleep
  • frequently waking up during sleep
  • not feeling well-rested after sleeping for a suitable number of hours
  • waking up gasping for air or feeling short of breath
  • waking up with a headache, dry mouth, or sore throat
  • feeling more irritable and having trouble focusing on tasks when you’re awake

Talk with your doctor if you’re looking to be screened for your sleep irregularities.

In some cases, a healthcare professional may even refer you to a respiratory specialist to make sure your symptoms aren’t the result of a breathing issue outside of your sleep.

If your symptoms are sleep-related, your doctor may encourage you to participate in overnight polysomnography. This a fairly noninvasive procedure during which you’ll have your vitals monitored by a professional while you sleep. A technologist will track how you breathe when you’re asleep.

In-lab polysomnography is the most accurate way to diagnose OSA, but it can be a costly procedure depending on your insurance coverage. If this is the case for you, there are at-home tests that you can self-administer on your own schedule. While this method may not be as accurate, it could be better for your budget.

There is no cure for sleep apnea, but there are many ways to manage the symptoms and improve the quality of your sleep. One of the most effective ways to treat sleep apnea is with a CPAP machine.

CPAP machine

“Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the gold standard treatment for moderate or severe OSA,” Ford says. He explains that it’s a machine that streams a continuous flow of oxygen and other elements we normally inhale into the airway to gently and steadily keep the airway open.

Think of it like the “tube man” balloons you’ve probably seen dancing at a car lot — the CPAP prevents airways from collapsing and interrupting your sleep.

While it’s no substitute for a CPAP machine, there are some personal adjustments that you can make to help reduce the impact of sleep apnea.

Self-help

One of the easiest changes you can make is to the position you sleep in at night.

Studies have shown that sleeping in a supine position (a fancy way of saying “sleeping on your back”) can make sleep apnea worse because lying in that position makes it easier for your airways to collapse. Medical professionals recommend sleeping on your side because it doesn’t have such a direct impact on your airways.

You can also:

  • limit alcohol consumption
  • quit or reduce your smoking
  • exercise more
  • use a humidifier containing anti-inflammatory oils

Managing sleep apnea through practical at-home steps and advice from a physician is vital for your mental and physical well-being.

As one study concluded, early detection and treatment of OSA can improve your mental and physical health by addressing the symptoms before they become more destructive and life-threatening.

There is no guarantee that a mental health issue can be resolved by treating sleep apnea. But by prioritizing OSA head on, you can put yourself in a better position to restore your mental health by knowing that you are at least fully rested.