Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common sleep disorder that affects an estimated 22 percent of men and 17 percent of women. This amounts to millions of Americans and nearly one billion people worldwide. OSA, the most common form of sleep apnea, includes the relaxing of the throat muscles to the point of blocking the airway, which oftentimes causes individuals to snore and sleep poorly throughout the night. On top of the debilitating symptoms those with OSA typically experience, it’s also associated with a number of health concerns: heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and dementia.
While many of these things may seem unrelated, the truth is that OSA can have an impact on nearly every area of one’s well-being. For example, did you know that a link exists between OSA, hypertension, and gut bacteria? It’s surprising but true: Research suggests that there is a direct relationship between OSA and hypertension, and when individuals don’t get enough sleep at night, certain bacteria can get a boost and overpopulate.
But that’s just the beginning. Let’s dive deeper into what OSA, hypertension, and gut bacteria have to do with one other.
Hypertension and OSA
Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure and the “silent killer,” is an important issue is one of the most common and serious health concerns. According to the WHO, hypertension is expected to affect almost half of all adults in the US alone. Worldwide, it impacts about 1.28 billion people aged 30 to 79. When someone’s blood pressure is too high, it can cause severe damage to the heart, harden arteries, and decrease the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart and body.
Although it often goes unnoticed, there are ways to catch high blood pressure early, including regular screening. The following symptoms are a few signs of hypertension:
- Chest pain (angina)
- Morning headaches
- Vision changes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Irregular heartbeat
- Muscle tremors
Like hypertension, OSA often goes unnoticed and untreated. It is estimated that 85 percent of people who struggle with the disorder have no idea. Additionally, research suggests that there is a dose-response relationship between OSA and hypertension. This means that those who do not breathe well at night also have an increased risk of developing hypertension, and many people experiencing OSA could also have hypertension because of it. While the exact reasons behind this relationship are still being explored, there is reason to suggest that the gut may play a role.
The Relationship between Gut Bacteria and OSA
The gut needs bacteria to help it digest certain components of food; however, it’s important that the body’s microbiome is balanced. If the body has too many or too few microorganisms in the gut, it could lead to a number of health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and dementia. For example, dysbiosis, the imbalance or reduction in microbial diversity, can include a lack of beneficial bacteria in exchange for more harmful microorganisms.
Those who experience dysbiosis are more likely to have a variety of stomach and other health issues, such as the following:
- Cardiovascular problems like hypertension
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Central nervous system disorders
While your gut health clearly has an impact on your health, you’re probably still wondering, “How does bacteria have anything to do with sleep apnea?” According to a study from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, obstructive sleep apnea causes intermittent hypoxia—also known as low levels of blood oxygen—throughout the night. As a result, this hypoxia creates a decrease in oxygen in the stomach and gastrointestinal system, allowing bacteria that can only grow in low-oxygen environments to flourish. As a result, this overproduction of too much bad bacteria can push the creation of other necessary bacteria to the side.
Two types of bacteria, Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, make up around 90 percent of the bacteria in our gut. An imbalance in these two bacteria can have an especially significant impact on the body’s homeostasis, leading to damage to the gut lining, insufficient fiber, and overall dysfunction throughout the gastrointestinal system and the body.
How Gut Bacteria Relates to Hypertension
Similarly, the damage caused by an imbalance in gut bacteria can lead to high blood pressure. As the stomach lining thins and becomes weaker, it allows compounds to be excreted into the blood and flow to other organs. These toxins flow throughout the body freely when a healthy stomach would have prevented them from entering. In response, the body reacts with an inflammatory response.
Inflammation is associated with a number of conditions, but it plays a big role in the cause of hypertension. When the body experiences long-term inflammation, the arteries become stiffer, causing blood pressure to spike. For example, one study found that systemic inflammation may play a role in the development of hypertension—including in individuals who had no hypertension prior to the body’s inflammatory response.
In short, the hypoxia caused by OSA disturbs the body’s microbiome and leads to irregularities in the gut’s bacteria. As a result, this imbalance causes the gastrointestinal system’s lining to leak and release toxins into the blood and throughout the body. Sparking inflammation, the body responds by attacking these toxins, therefore leading to arterial stiffness and higher blood pressure.
It’s clear that the treatment of OSA could be life-changing for many of those dealing with the sleep disorder. Not only could it help them sleep better at night and perform well throughout the day, but they could also experience dramatic improvements in their overall health, especially when it comes to hypertension and gut health. If you’re a dentist or medical doctor, you can help. With the right treatment, your patients could experience a lifetime of relief from OSA and its associated conditions.