Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Cholesterol – What’s the Big Deal?

Sleep disorders are known to result in many significant health issues. Sleep deprivation can weaken the body’s immune system, disrupt metabolic function, cause inflammation, and often wreaks havoc with appetite. Not only that, but a lack of oxygen due to sleep related breathing disorders such as sleep apnea can result in heart disease, stroke, hypertension and sometimes even death.

“What about cholesterol?” we hear you say… well, that too.

According to WHO, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled in the past 50 years. In 2016, more than 39% of adults were overweight and 13% were obese. According to Web MD, every 10 pounds a person is overweight causes their body to produce as much as 10 milligrams of additional cholesterol every day.

What is cholesterol?

The American Heart Association describes cholesterol as a “waxy substance” which your body needs “to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones”.

Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need, but we can still ingest cholesterol by consuming foods from animals such as meat, poultry and dairy products all contain dietary cholesterol.

How does sleep apnea cause an increase in cholesterol?

A study conducted in 2016 at the University of Helsinki found that the “genes responsible for cholesterol transportation are not as active in someone who has suffered from sleep deprivation as they would be in someone getting good, quality sleep.”

An older study, but one of the largest on this subject, examined the health histories of 6,000 people and found that those with obstructive sleep apnea tested higher for LDL cholesterol and triglycerides of similar body mass who did not suffer from sleep apnea, according to the report published in the December 1997 issue of “Sleep.”

In 2021 a study reviewed 15 male subjects who had confirmed Obstructive Sleep Apnea and 16 male healthy controls, and again, the OSA patients were found to have significantly higher triacylglycerols, total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol compared to healthy controls.

Does that mean all cholesterol is bad?

Well, it’s not ALL bad…HDL is the “good” cholesterol because it helps clear out LDL or “bad” cholesterol, to prevent heart disease by attaching to proteins and transporting it throughout the body via blood circulation. However, too much of a good thing can lead to arterial blockage. High LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, causes fatty plaque to build up in your arteries, which can lead to heart disease.

Besides sleep apnea, certain factors can increase an individual’s risk of high cholesterol, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes and obesity can affect an individual’s blood lipid profile and lead to low HDL and high LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Eating a diet high in saturated fats, which are found in red meat, and trans fats (listed as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil”), found in margarine and baked goods and smoking tobacco lowers your HDL levels. Even being exposed to second-hand smoke can be bad for your cholesterol level.
  • Chronic stress can lead to increased LDL and decreased HDL cholesterol levels, so individuals can try including stress-relieving activities in their day. These may include meditation, exercise, and connecting with friends.
  • Low physical activity levels can contribute to high cholesterol and heart disease.
  • The risk of high cholesterol increases with age. Typically, females have lower LDL cholesterol levels than men until they reach age 55 years or menopause. Males generally have lower HDL cholesterol levels than females
  • Some individuals have an inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. This causes high LDL cholesterol levels even at a young age. If an individual does not receive treatment for the condition, cholesterol levels continue to increase as they age.

However, if you think you may have sleep apnea, or that your sleep apnea is the cause of your high cholesterol, it’s important to get treated as soon as possible. The most popular source of treatment for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine but a doctor may suggest other options such as an oral appliance, or even surgery.

Ognomy’s board-certified sleep specialists are available online for video consultations making it quick and easy to get tested and treated for sleep apnea, all from the comfort of your home.

Get your sleep apnea checked – and prevent or control further cholesterol or weight related problems which are often severe and life limiting.

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