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What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Apnea explained in 1 min

Do you wake up tired? Does your partner complain that you snore? Did you know that 1 in about 4 Canadian adults suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)?  

Sleep Apnea is an involuntary pause in breathing during your sleep for at least 10 seconds. OSA is the most common sleep disorder, caused by an obstruction of the airways in the throat region(1,2), and happens when the muscles relax during sleep.

Airflow is obstructed or reduced, causing vibrations that can result in snoring during sleep, a drop in oxygen, and a rise in your heartbeat. The brain senses this lack of oxygen and responds with sudden, unconscious "micro-awakenings" to restore breathing. The repeated occurrence of frequent interruptions of breathing during the night breaks the sleep pattern, which ceases to be a restorative activity. 

Sleep Handbook: 

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Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a serious and very common sleep disorder that significantly affects your quality of life and overall health.

Do you snore? Could you have sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is commonly associated with loud snoring, but not all snorers suffer from sleep apnea (4). For 75% of people with sleep apnea, the first sign is when your bed partner complains about it, or when he/she notices that you are panting or breathing abnormally, and therefore will likely have an agitated sleep (5)

Some mild snoring can be harmless and often treated with over-the-counter products like ones that improve your sleep positioning. But when your snoring is loud and accompanied by breathing pauses called apneas – which are periods when you stop breathing and then gasp for air – it can be a sign of sleep apnea.

If you are experiencing 2 or more of the below common symptoms, you may be at risk for obstructive sleep apnea and should speak with your medical professional:

  • Loud snoring

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness

  • Morning headache

  • Mood changes, such as depression or irritability

  • Difficulty concentrating during the day

  • Abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking

  • Recurring dry mouth or sore throat

  • Repeated visits to the bathroom at night

Consequences of untreated sleep apnea

The health risks of untreated sleep apnea reach far beyond daytime exhaustion. Common risks caused by untreated sleep apnea include hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  


Obstructive sleep apnea and your heart

The combination of sleep disturbances and lack of oxygen can lead to the development or worsening of chronic health diseases which are closely associated with obstructive sleep apnea, including:

  • High blood pressure 3,4
  • Stroke 3,4
  • Type 2 diabetes 5
  • Metabolic syndrome 6
  • Depression 7
  • Heart rhythm disorder
  • Heart failure (when the heart no longer pumps enough blood to meet the body's needs) (15).

Obesity, diabetes and sleep apnea

Feeling tired can cause you to eat more than you normally would and lead to weight gain. 

  • Approximately 15-30% of people with OSA also have type 2 diabetes (11).
  • Interrupted sleep caused by sleep apnea puts stress on your heart and your body. It can cause your blood sugar levels to rise, potentially leading to insulin resistance. 



1. The World Health Organization. Chronic respiratory diseases viewed 21/05/2015
2 . Rules for Scoring Respiratory Events in Sleep: Update of the 2007 AASM Manual for Scoring of Sleep and Associated Events – Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Vol. 8, No. 5, 2012
4 .Sleep breathing disorders – European Respiratory Society White Book (chapter 23) 
5 .Obstructive sleep apnoea, Sleep Health Foundation, 2011
6. American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM)- Sleep disorders-Sleep Apnea, Consulted 12/08 /2021@
7.Obstructive sleep apnoea, Sleep Health Foundation, 2011
8 .Sleep breathing disorders – European Respiratory Society White Book (chapter)
9. Terán-Santos J., Jiménez-Gómez A., & Cordero-Guevara, J. (1999). between sleep apnea and the risk of traffic accidents. N Engl J Med., 340(11), 881-3.
10. Somers VK et al. Circulation. 2008 Sep 2;118(10):1080-111
11 .Reutrakul S et al. Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Diabetes: A State of the Art Review. Chest. 2017 Nov;152(5):1070-1086
12 .Garbarino S et al. Association of Anxiety and Depression in Obstructive Sleep Apnea Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Behav Sleep Med. 2020 Jan-Feb;18(1):35-57
13.Bonsignore MR et al. Obstructive sleep apnea and comorbidities: a dangerous liaison. Multidiscip Respir Med. 2019 Feb 14;14:8
14 .American Heart Association. Heart and stroke encyclopedia. Coronary thrombosis
15 .American Heart Association. Heart and stroke encyclopedia. Heart failure
16. Obstructive Sleep Apnoea – A guide for GPs – British Lung Foundation (NHS)
17. Benjafield Adam V et al. Estimation of the global prevalence and burden of obstructive sleep apnoea: a literature-based analysis. Lancet Respir Med. 2019;7(8):687-698. doi:10.1016/S2213-2600(19)30198-5
18.Tufik S, Santos-Silva R, Taddei JA, Bittencourt LRA. Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome n the Sao Paulo epidemiologic sleep study. Sleep Med 2010;11:441–6.
19 . Heinzer R, Vat S, Marques-Vidal P, et al. Prevalence of sleep-disordered breathing in the general population: the HypnoLaus study. Lancet Resp Med 2015;3:310–8.
20. Sleep breathing disorders – European Respiratory Society WhiteBook (chapter 23)

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