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Can Sleep Apnea Cause Gastrointestinal Problems?

Airway Evaluation, Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Explore the Cause of Your Discomfort

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has been extensively studied for its links to health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, and strokes. Despite the substantial research in this area, little attention has been given to its impact on the gastrointestinal system.  

Let’s explore how stress during OSA episodes can trigger gastrointestinal problems and understand what health implications this issue may have for people with this sleep disorder.

The Relationship Between Sleep Apnea and Gastrointestinal Problems 

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea and upper airway resistance syndrome can trigger a stress response within the body, leading to various physiological changes. During periods of acute stress, the body redirects blood flow and activates the nervous system, prioritizing the heart and core muscles for the fight-or-flight response. During this response, the brain also instructs the body to divert resources away from the bowels. 

For those with obstructive sleep apnea, this stress response becomes chronic and low-grade, resulting in a continual diversion of blood flow and nutrient supply away from the gastrointestinal system. Consequently, the normal digestive processes, including acid secretion, bile formation, peristalsis (the rhythmic movement of the muscles in the digestive tract), and nutrient absorption, become impaired due to compromised blood flow. 

When this happens, the body can’t adequately break down nutrients, leading to incomplete absorption and discomfort. Moreover, the altered gastrointestinal environment disrupts the delicate balance required for proper digestion, causing irregular bowel movements. 

Patients with compromised digestive processes suffer from symptoms like: 

  • Bloating 
  • Stomach pain 
  • Indigestion 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Constipation 
  • Gastrointestinal Conditions Resulting from Sleep Apnea

Conditions Affected by Sleep Apnea

Acid Reflux 

Numerous studies have established a connection between sleep apnea and acid reflux, revealing a bidirectional relationship where treating one condition can positively impact the symptoms of the other. As airways become obstructed at night, the pressure changes cause acid, bile, digestive enzymes, and bacteria to reflux into the esophagus. This backflow of gastric contents triggers or exacerbates acid reflux symptoms. 

The consequences of reflux extend beyond the esophagus, as documented reports have shown the presence of pepsin, a digestive enzyme, in samples collected from the middle ear, sinus, and lungs. This widespread distribution of refluxed substances indicates the potential for further complications. Patients with sleep apnea who breathe through their mouth and have less saliva are particularly susceptible to dental issues due to frequent exposure to refluxed substances. 

Colon Cancer 

Research has provided evidence linking sleep apnea to an elevated risk of colon cancer, alongside other cancer types. A study conducted in Spain revealed that OSA was associated with higher cancer rates in men under 65. Among the cancers observed, colon cancer emerged as the most common type, followed by prostate, lung, and breast cancer. 

Celiac Disease 

A study conducted at the University of Naples examined the effects of a gluten-free diet, a standard treatment for celiac disease, on sleep quality scores in celiac patients. The study found that adopting this diet did not significantly improve sleep quality among the participants. 

In addition to this study, observations made by Dr. Steven Y. Park, a reputable surgeon, and expert in sleep-related and breathing problems, have brought attention to a potential anatomical connection between celiac symptoms and sleep apnea. Dr. Park noted that individuals with celiac symptoms, whether diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, exhibited a common physical characteristic: a small jaw with very narrowed airways. 

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Chron’s, Ulcerative Colitis) 

Research conducted by experts from Rush University has revealed a potential link between sleep apnea and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The study compared the sleep quality of patients with IBD, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and a control group. The results demonstrated significant differences in sleep patterns between the groups. 

In particular, participants with IBD and IBS exhibited an average Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI) of 7-8, significantly higher than the AHI of less than one observed in the control group. The AHI reflects the number of apneas (complete pauses in breathing) and hypopneas (partial reductions in breathing) experienced per hour during sleep, with higher values indicating more severe sleep apnea. The study also found that 13 percent of all participants with IBD and IBS had obstructive sleep apnea. 

Are You Interested in the Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Gastrointestinal Problems? 

For professional assistance in addressing sleep apnea and breathing issues that cause gastrointestinal problems, consult our experienced specialists at Sunrise Orthodontics and Airway and Sleep Group. Contact us today to schedule an appointment or learn more. 

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