Sleep Apnea Raises Blood Pressure and Weight

Natalie Stein
September 1, 2018

Sleep apnea diagnosis and solutions

Are you ever sleepy during the day? Do you wake up often during the night? Does your partner complain that you snore? 

You may be having trouble with healthy sleep, and one of the most common sleep disorders is sleep apnea. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports that an estimated 18 million American adults have sleep apnea.  

Disturbances in your sleep due to sleep apnea can make you groggy during the day, but sleep apnea is far more than just an inconvenience. It is a true health concern. Sleep apnea is linked to weight gain and high blood pressure.

Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have sleep apnea, think you may have sleep apnea, or have risk factors for sleep apnea. You can get this serious health condition checked out and figure out a treatment plan. The results may be more energy, an easier time controlling your weight, lower blood pressure, and better overall health.  

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which you have periods of interrupted breathing during your sleep. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) explains that you may stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer several times in a night.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It is the result of your airway being blocked when the tissue at the back of your throat relaxes. Sleep apnea can also result from trouble with your brain’s breathing signals. This kind of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea (CSA). 

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Although sleep apnea is the cessation of breathing during the night, those periods probably will not alert you that you have sleep apnea. Instead, the symptoms that you are likely to notice are the symptoms of sleep deprivation. 

  • Sleepiness during the day.

  • Lack of focus and difficulty concentrating.

  • Irritability.

  • Anxiety, mood changes, or depression.

You may feel that your sleep is restless. If you have a partner, he or she may notice snoring and patterns in which you stop breathing and then gasp for air. 

Sleep Apnea Risk Factors

An estimated 1 in 5 American adults will develop sleep apnea. Are you likely to be one of them? The risk factors for sleep apnea include both lifestyle and genetic factors.

  • Obesity. Extra fat around your airways can interfere with breathing.

  • Smoking.

  • Nasal congestion.

  • Being male or a post-menopausal woman.

  • Family history of sleep apnea.

  • Use of alcohol.

  • Use of sedatives.

  • History of stroke.

Consequences of Sleep Apnea

“Being tired” is not the only effect of sleep apnea. The condition can lead to dangerous complications. For example, people with sleep apnea are up to 5 times more likely to be in motor vehicle accidents! You can fall asleep at the wheel or lose focus more easily.

Sleep apnea is also linked to:

  • Type 2 diabetes.

  • Cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and irregular heartbeat.

  • Fatty liver disease.

  • Metabolic syndrome.

Sleep Apnea and Blood Pressure

You can think of sleep apnea and blood pressure as being linked in a cycle. As you have seen, high blood pressure is a risk factor for sleep apnea. The reverse is also true: sleep apnea can raise hypertension risk. 

 Sleep apnea and high blood pressure

The NSF explains how sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure and other cardiovascular risks. While you are sleeping, you may temporarily stop breathing due to a blockage in your airway. This results in less oxygen in your body.

Your brain realizes that oxygen is inadequate and tries to correct the situation. Since blood is the carrier of oxygen to the cells in your body, your brain’s compensation strategy is to increase blood flow in your blood vessels. This does increase the oxygen supply, but it does something else: it increases blood pressure and can cause high blood pressure headaches.

Sleep Apnea and Weight Gain

As with blood pressure, weight can be closely tied to sleep apnea in a potentially vicious cycle. You are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea if you are overweight. And, you are more likely to gain weight if you have sleep apnea. 

 Sleep apnea and weight gain can lead to high blood pressure
 Sleep apnea and high blood pressure

Here are some ways sleep apnea can lead to weight gain through no fault of your own.

  • Lack of energy. We all feel better after a good night’s rest. A single night of poor sleep may not make much difference, but you will probably feel tired after a few nights of poor sleep. Consider how sluggish you might feel if you struggle with sleep apnea for months on end! Feeling so tired each day can make it harder to get through your workouts, and you will probably cut back on your regular daily activity as well, as you try to save your energy. Unfortunately, “conserving energy” means “burning fewer calories,” which means increasing risk for weight gain.

  • Hormonal shifts. Your hormone balance depends on sleep, and some of the hormones that are disrupted when you are short are related to hunger, appetite, and fat storage. Sleep deprivation is linked to higher levels of a hormone called ghrelin, which is known to increase hunger. It is also linked to lower levels of leptin, which is known as the satiety hormone. The increase in ghrelin and decrease in leptin due to sleep apnea could make you feel extra hungry, even if your body does not need extra food. Eating according to that high level of hunger can cause weight gain.

  • Decreased metabolism. Your metabolism describes how fast your body burns calories. Cutting yourself short on sleep can cause an astonishing disturbance in metabolism. The activity of your thyroid hormone, which is involved in almost all of your body’s functions, decreases with sleep deprivation. That means you burn fewer calories just to be alive – and that’s a quick path to unfair weight gain.

  • Changes in glucose metabolism. Your body breaks carbohydrates from food into a molecule called glucose, and a hormone called insulin helps your body use the glucose properly. Without enough sleep, your body develops insulin resistance and has trouble properly using glucose, or energy from carbohydrates.

  • More cravings. Not only can you feel physically hungrier, but you can have more cravings with sleep apnea. Lack of sleep can lead to 23% overall increase in appetite, including a 32% increase in appetite for foods that are high in carbohydrates, or sugars and starches. Since fat can also taste better when you are tired, the foods you crave may include fries, cookies, ice cream, brownies, and bagels. Celery sticks and apple slices just may not taste as good when you are tired.

  • Less resistance. Not only are you hungrier, and have stronger cravings, but you may have more trouble saying “no” when you are tired. You may be simply too tired to have enough willpower, or you might not have the strength and clarity to prepare healthy alternatives ahead of time.

Sleep Apnea and Weight Gain

 Sleep apnea and weight gain

Sleep Apnea Diagnosis

Any of the symptoms of sleep apnea are cause for consulting a doctor. You can find out whether you have sleep apnea and what you can do about it. Your doctor might assess your likelihood for sleep apnea by asking about your signs and symptoms. She might also ask your sleeping partner or members of your household if they notice snoring or intermittent cessation of breathing that is characteristic of sleep apnea.

The next step can be a test to diagnose sleep apnea. You could do a sleep test at home with devices that measure your heart rate and blood oxygen level and detect your breathing patterns. The devices that you use can be portable so you can borrow them overnight for your test at home. The home sleep test is less accurate, but it is less expensive and can be more comfortable and convenient for some people.

Another option is to go to a sleep center for a nocturnal polysomnography. You will stay overnight and be connected to more extensive equipment while you sleep. Along with heart rate, blood oxygenation, and breathing patterns, you might get information on brain activity and arm and leg movements. Your sleep test may include an evaluation of sleep apnea for a few hours, followed by an evaluation of how well certain therapies may work for you.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

In many cases, you can target the cause of sleep apnea with the goal of eliminating the condition. You may be able to make certain lifestyle changes or have other treatments to get rid of the problems that are causing your sleep apnea.

  • Quitting smoking.

  • Losing weight.

  • Treating nasal allergies.

  • Clearing a blockage in your nose or throat.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure for Sleep Apnea

More severe cases of sleep apnea may need immediate treatment to keep the airways open overnight and lower the risk of complications. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine helps keep your airways open and deliver oxygen through a mask. 

Some patients with sleep apnea prefer an alternative to CPAP such as an oral appliance that you can get from a dentist. The device holds your jaw in a position that lowers the chance of your airway being blocked.  

Surgery for Sleep Apnea

Surgery for sleep apnea is not usually done unless you have tried other treatments first. Surgery approaches vary. They can include repositioning your jaw, reducing the size of the tissue that has been blocking your airway, and implants to prevent blockage.

What Next?

Sleep apnea can interfere with your lifestyle and lead to serious medical conditions, and there is more. Nobody wants to gain weight unfairly, and there is no reason why you should have an increased risk of higher blood pressure if you can help it. 

The good news is that sleep apnea can often be treated. If you think you may have sleep apnea, you should act. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for it so you can overcome it. You can feel better, normalize your metabolism and weight, and lower health risks. 


1. https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/sleep-apnea
2. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Sleep-Apnea-Information-Page
3. https://sleepdisorders.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-related-breathing-disorders/obstructive-sleep-apnea-syndrome/prevalence/
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792976/
5. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems-list/how-sleep-apnea-affects-blood-pressure
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1991337/
7. https://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/502825
8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11874812
9. https://www.sleepapnea.org/treat/getting-sleep-apnea-diagnosis/

Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health