• Jane Litsey

Sleep Apnea - The underlying cause of your chronic disease?

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

The goal of naturopathic and functional medicine is to uncover the underlying drivers of disease – this kind of medicine is known as root cause medicine. Instead of treating the symptoms of disease, the naturopathic doctor asks the question – what is the cause of disease?

One of the most overlooked and under appreciated causes of disease is sleep apnea. Have you heard of it? It can occur when muscles in the back of the throat collapse momentarily at night and occlude breathing. This drop in oxygen – also known as hypoxia - is deeply disruptive to the regenerative aspects of sleep, and also induces hormonal, nervous system and immune changes that lay the foundation for multiple chronic diseases. In the literature sleep apnea has been shown to increase the risk for developing cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, dementia, chronic kidney disease, sexual dysfunction, depression and many others (1,2,3,4).

How does sleep apnea lead to high blood pressure?

When the muscles in the back of the throat collapse, breathing momentarily stops and oxygen levels in the blood plummet. This is incredibly alarming to the body. Sleep is typically a time that is dominated by the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of our autonomic nervous system that controls relaxation and digestion. When oxygen falls, the body goes into an alarm state and turns on the sympathetic nervous system, which raises heart rate and blood pressure (4). According to the research, 50% of people with hypertension have underlying sleep apnea (1). Taking a blood pressure medication does not address this underlying problem.

What are the signs of sleep apnea?

Common signs of sleep apnea include snoring, waking up gasping for air, feeling unrested, morning headaches, difficulty concentrating and remembering things, nighttime urination, irritability, decreased libido and insomnia (3).

How do you diagnose sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can be diagnosed by polysomnography in a sleep lab or with a medical device that is used at home for a night. Sleep studies typically cost between $200-$2000.

A third option – the one I use – is a commercial sleep monitor by the company EverSleep, which costs around $250. It is a super useful tool to quickly assess oxygen levels, heart rate, snoring and how much you move at night. Instead of a one or two night study, it allows you to track sleep quality over time to make sure lack of oxygen is not a problem. EverSleep also gives detailed coaching every morning about exactly what happened with your sleep the night before, and how to improve it.  

Through an arrangement with the manufacturer my blog is offering a $20 off coupon for EverSleep.  Just type JANE20 at checkout.  Note that I receive a small referral fee if you use this coupon, but I believe in their product and recommend it often to my family, friends and medical colleagues.

Have you checked to make sure sleep apnea isn’t a problem for you? It just might be the missing root cause of your chronic disease.



1. Knauert Melissa, Naik Sreelatha, Gillespie M Boyd, Kryger Meir. Clinical consequences and economic costs of untreated obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. World J Otorhinolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015 Sep; 1(1): 17–27.

2. Gildeh Nadia, Drakatos Panagis, Higgins Sean, Rosenzweig Ivana, Kent Brian. Emerging co-morbidities of obstructive sleep apnea: cognition, kidney disease, and cancer. Journal of Thoracic Disease. 2016 Sep; 8(9): E901–E917.

3. Jeremy R. Tietjens, David Claman, Eric J. Kezirian, Teresa De Marco, Armen Mirzayan, Bijan Sadroonri, Andrew N. Goldberg, Carlin Long, Edward P. Gerstenfeld, and Yerem Yeghiazarians. Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Cardiovascular Disease: A Review of the Literature an. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2019;8:e010440 d Proposed Multidisciplinary Clinical Management Strategy

4. Swati Chopra, Aman Rathore, Haris Younas, Luu V. Pham, Chenjuan Gu, Aleksandra Beselman, Il-Young Kim, Robert R. Wolfe, Jamie Perin, Vsevolod Y. Polotsky, and Jonathan C. Obstructive Sleep Apnea Dynamically Increases Nocturnal Plasma Free Fatty Acids, Glucose, and Cortisol During Sleep. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2017 Sep 1; 102(9): 3172–3181.

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