The Link between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Blood Triglyceride Levels

November 17, 2021

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a serious sleep disorder characterized by breathing that stops partially or completely throughout the night due to an obstruction of the upper airway. Those who have OSA typically experience a number of health concerns and symptoms, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, and difficulty concentrating throughout the day. The sleep disorder is also associated with a number of chronic health concerns: heart disease, high blood pressure, dementia, diabetes, anxiety, depression, and more.

New research has found that those with severe OSA are also more likely to have high concentrations of triglycerides in the blood due to a significant reduction in blood oxygen concentrations. Let’s dive into how OSA and blood triglyceride levels are linked, how they can impact an individual’s health in the long term, and why this new research indicates you should be screening for OSA in every patient.

Why High Triglyceride Levels Matter

Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood, and they are created by the body with any calories that it doesn’t need to use right away. High levels of triglycerides typically have no symptoms; however, when left untreated, they can increase the risk of serious complications like stroke and heart disease. Especially high levels can similarly increase your risk of acute pancreatitis: inflammation of the pancreas that causes severe abdominal pain.

While normal fasting triglyceride levels are less than 75 mg/dL for children aged 10 and under and less than 90 mg/dL for children older than 10 and adults, those with high blood triglycerides may have levels that consistently fall above 150 mg/dL. Very high levels can even reach over 500 mg/dL or more.

Several medical conditions—like thyroid disease, diabetes, liver diseases, and obesity—as well as lifestyle habits and medicines, are all correlated with high blood triglycerides. Now, with new research, it’s clear that OSA is also associated with this medical concern. Not only do high levels of triglyceride increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease, but they could also be a sign of or contribute to another serious health concern.

The Connection between OSA and Triglycerides

According to Professor Gary Wittert from the Freemasons Centre for Male Health and Well-Being at the University of Adelaide, OSA is connected to increased cardiovascular risk due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and systemic inflammation. It was also shown to reduce the clearance of lipoproteins rich with triglyceride and inhibited adipose tissue lipoprotein lipase (LPL) activity. This means that OSA prevents your body from clearing away triglycerides at a healthy level and inhibits lipoprotein from working efficiently.

When the blood has too many triglycerides, it tends to show up among a number of other concerns, including the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High levels of LDL cholesterol
  • Low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol

Making lifestyle choices may improve triglyceride levels and improve your cardiovascular health; however, this study has also found startling results that OSA can impact the triglyceride concentrations of people in excellent health. In fact, the most significant effects were found in a group of people who have historically been recognized at a lower risk of OSA: those who were not overweight.

Half of the participants in the study—which included 753 men—were shown to have moderate to severe OSA, and 75 percent of those over the age of 40 had some form of the disorder. While further studies are needed to evaluate the relationship between OSA and triglycerides in all groups, this research shows a significant association between cardiovascular health and OSA, making the need to screen for and treat the disorder even more essential moving forward.

Why You Need to Screen All Patients for OSA

OSA does not only affect patients who are obese or overweight. Clearly, it should also be considered in men with high blood triglyceride concentrations—even if they may seem otherwise healthy and lean. Not only could treatment for the sleep disorder decrease a patient’s triglyceride levels, but it could also be beneficial in reducing other symptoms and concerns associated with OSA. Excellent treatment begins with efficient and accurate screening, and that starts with you.

Dentists are in the best position to screen for OSA. According to the ADA, “dentists are the only health care provider with the knowledge and expertise to provide oral appliance therapy,” which means they are also in an excellent role to assess every patient’s risk of OSA.

On top of the burden that sleep apnea has on an individual’s health, here are a few reasons why you should be screening for OSA in your practice:

  • Many signs of sleep apnea can present themselves in oral anatomy.
  • Early diagnosis is essential to successful treatment and improving overall health.
  • It could drastically improve and lead to new opportunities for your practice.
  • You can increase your revenue through unique treatment offerings.

With every patient that you see at a regular appointment, you should look for any signs that they have OSA. Should any concerns arise, administer a sleep test as soon as possible so you can begin treatment and improve their overall health quickly.

Because OSA is linked to so many health risks—including high blood triglyceride concentrations—it is particularly important for dentists to bridge the gap and ensure that patients get the care they need. High triglycerides are just one sign that a patient may have OSA, and it’s up to you to do what you can to help.