Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Depression: The Overlooked Connection

Untreated sleep apnea can harm a person’s mental health, with a higher risk of developing anxiety and bipolar disorders, depression, and even schizophrenia. 

The relationship between mental health and sleep apnea

The vicious cycle of apnea, sleep deprivation, and mental health issues can make it difficult to manage symptoms and work towards healthy lifestyle approaches, which usually relieve both conditions. Many medical practitioners advise treating apnea as a first step for improving sleep quality and mood, although it is important to understand the sensitive relationship between apnea and mental health to find the most suitable treatment for patients. 

The impact of sleep apnea on mental wellbeing

Sleep is essential for maintaining good health; however, good quality rest can often be hard to come by for apnea sufferers. Sleep disturbances caused by disruption to breathing can heavily impact psychological functions, leading to poor concentration, judgment, and reduced ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. The effects of these can extend into all aspects of a patient’s life, such as their work, close relationships, and social activities. Although a bad night’s sleep can leave many of us unmotivated to hit deadlines in the office or join our friends for an evening drink, the consistent battle of sleep deprivation for apnea patients can leave many feeling isolated and experiencing episodes of low moods.

What comes first? Sleep apnea or depression?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) diagnoses are rising across the US, alongside the growing rates of adults struggling with depression. The two conditions present with relatively similar symptoms, such as anxiety, sleep disturbances and mood changes, leading to missed diagnoses for OSA and escalating health issues for patients. Although studies have revealed a close relationship between apnea and depression, it is unclear which is likely to trigger the progression of the other. As apnea can be so frequently misdiagnosed when a patient presents with mental health issues, doctors may find it difficult to pinpoint which condition developed as the primary problem.

Addressing the overlap in depression and apnea symptoms

As depression can be a secondary condition to sleep apnea, patients and their medical practitioners need to review symptoms carefully, spotting clear signs of apnea for a confirmed diagnosis. We’ve listed below some of the common symptoms found in both depression and apnea cases. 

Stand-alone sleep apnea symptoms not associated with depression

  • Loud snoring, which is common in many apnea diagnosis
  • Breathing cessation while sleeping, which may cause waking in the night
  • Dry mouth or sore throat when waking

Symptoms of sleep apnea commonly mistaken for depression

  • Reduced concentration and difficulty focusing attention problem
  • Daytime sleepiness and brain fog, caused by sleep deprivation symptoms, which can be caused by sleep disturbances (apnea) and insomnia (depression)
  • Morning headaches
  • Feeling irritated and experiencing mood swings
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep during the night 

Treating apnea or depression? How to juggle the two conditions

Treatments used for managing symptoms of depression, such as sedation, antidepressants, and hypnotics, may improve a patient’s mood initially and reduce episodes of insomnia, but the results for those living with OSA aren’t always as positive. Some treatments, such as drugs that cause sedative effects, are known to exacerbate apnea symptoms, putting a patient at a higher risk of further medical complications. For most patients struggling with both apnea and depression, targeting OSA may relieve the symptoms of depression or eradicate the condition, especially if the mental health issues are a secondary condition as a result of chronic sleep deprivation. 

Lifestyle changes to tackle apnea and depression symptoms

Fortunately for patients, the lifestyle approaches recommended for both apnea and depression diagnosis are very similar, making this an efficient approach alongside other treatment methods in milder cases. For more information on dedicated apnea treatments and guidance, please visit our treatment pages [add hyperlink].

  • Regular exercise – to alleviate depression symptoms and promote weight loss.
  • Change sleep positions – avoid lying on the back where possible; this can stop the airway from becoming blocked and experiencing daytime wakening. 
  • Cut down or avoid alcohol – Drinking can make symptoms of both depression and sleep apnea worse.
  • Avoiding sleeping pills where possible – Unless directed by a doctor, sleeping pills should be avoided by apnea patients. They are also linked to mood issues for people suffering from depression. 

Explore sleep apnea treatments

Sleep Matters takes great pride in offering safe, effective, and comfortable apnea care to patients in the Independence, MO, area, providing efficient apnea screening and alternative treatments endorsed by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. We are experts in helping patients relieve symptoms and improve sleep quality, leading healthy lives without the obstacles of apnea and depression! Contact us today to explore your options.