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Insulin Resistance & Sleep Apnea: Is this Common Sleep Condition Affecting Your Diabetes?

Sleep Apnea is easy to miss and often ignored, but it has a major impact on insulin resistance and your blood sugar levels; tips on discovery & treatment

As people with diabetes, we can often see changes in our insulin sensitivity coming from the simplest things

  • A sunburn
  • A tense argument with your mother
  • Giving a monthly presentation at work

One of the most subtle but profound impacts on insulin resistance is sleep apnea.  It happens while you sleep. It’s easy to miss, it’s easy to ignore, and it often has a major impact on your blood sugar levels.

Let’s take a closer look.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is extremely common in people with type 2 diabetes. Also known as “obstructive sleep apnea” or “OSA,” this subtle but harmful condition is characterized by a lack of consistent breathing during your sleep. 

The lack of proper inhaling and exhaling can be so significant that you’re actually depriving your body of adequate oxygen throughout the entire night of sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation qualifies sleep apnea as a pause in your breathing that lasts at least 10 seconds long. Those pauses occur when the muscles in the back of your throat are partially closing or struggling to stay open properly while you sleep.

Of course, the only way you’d suspect you have sleep apnea is if the person you sleep next to also notices your abnormal breathing patterns while you sleep. For many, the pauses in breathing are accompanied by heavy snoring, which only makes the pauses easier to identify.  

(Most likely, you are a pretty noisy sleeper, so it’s very possible your partner is awake and observing your funky sleep patterns.) 

Tip: You could set-up a recording device (using the voice-memos app on your phone, for example) and play it back in the morning to see if you can catch audible gaps of breathing.

Your risk of developing sleep apnea…

According to Harvard, the following habits or characteristics increase your risk of developing sleep apnea.

  • Being obese or overweight (the majority of people diagnosed with sleep apnea)
  • Family history of the condition or disruptive snoring
  • Abnormal facial features, like a small jaw, large neck or recessed chin
  • Being male vs. female — it is more common in men
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Large tonsils
  • Consuming alcohol before bed
  • Thyroid condition
  • Older than 40
  • Menopause
  • African-American, Pacific-Islander, or Hispanic descent

Consequences of sleep apnea

There are many consequences of untreated sleep apnea — many of which lead to increased insulin resistance.

Study after study after study has found that sleep apnea increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, is present in more than 50 percent of patients with type 2 diabetes, and directly increases blood sugar levels through creating stress on the body, increasing stress hormone production, and increasing insulin resistance.

The full list of consequences of sleep apnea include:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Exhaustion and brain-fog
  • Hypertension
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased risk congestive heart failure
  • Increased risk/occurrence of heart attack
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Ongoing depression and mood instability
  • Difficulty with short and long-term memory
  • Lack of attention during activities like driving

Diagnosing and treating sleep apnea

The standard of care for diagnosing and treating sleep apnea is actually very simple.

If you suspect you are struggling with sleep apnea, you’ll talk to your primary care doctor about enrolling in an overnight “sleep study.” For one night, you will sleep in a medical center sleep facility during which they will track and observe your breathing. 

If you qualify for sleep apnea, the next step is to start sleeping with a CPAP device.

A CPAP is a “continuous positive airway pressure” device that ensures you are getting plenty of oxygen while you sleep. It’s also shown in research to directly impact insulin resistance and overall blood sugar levels.

While CPAP devices look daunting and uncomfortable, most patients report greatly improved sleep, and the benefits they immediately provide far outweigh the annoyance of having to wear them. 

You can also work on improving other lifestyle habits to improve your sleep apnea, like quitting smoking, losing weight, reducing alcohol consumption, getting more exercise, and improving your nutrition.

For many, getting proper treatment for sleep apnea leads to better sleep, more energy, improved mood and happiness, fewer cravings for junk food, and weight-loss! All of which inevitably affect your levels of insulin resistance, too.

Taking the steps to diagnose and treat sleep apnea may feel tedious (because, really, who wants to be studied while they sleep in a hospital), but the consequences of untreated sleep apnea are real. And they could be affecting nearly every part of your physical and emotional wellbeing. 

If you suspect your body is struggling with sleep apnea, talk to your healthcare team and get the help you need! Your sleep will thank you. 

Ginger Vieira has lived with Type 1 diabetes and Celiac disease since 1999, and fibromyalgia since 2014. She is the author of 4 books: Pregnancy with Type 1 Diabetes, Dealing with Diabetes Burnout, Emotional Eating with Diabetes, Your Diabetes Science Experiment. Ginger creates content regularly for Diabetes Strong, Healthline, HealthCentral, DiabetesDaily, EverydayHealth and her YouTube Channel. Her background includes a B.S. in Professional Writing, certifications in cognitive coaching, Ashtanga yoga, and personal training with several records in drug-free powerlifting. She lives in Vermont with two kiddos and two dogs.

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