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Sleep Apnea and Depression: Just a Small Step Apart

Sleep apnea is a serious sleeping disorder that can cause many problems, and there are many studies which link sleep apnea and depression.

For those who are unfamiliar with sleep apnea, it is a sleeping disorder where a person stops breathing for short periods of time while sleeping. The causes of sleep apnea are typically due to obstructions of the air passages in the nose and throat, which is referred to as obstructive sleep apnea. However, it can also be cause by problems with the central nervous system, which is referred to as central sleep apnea and is quite rare.

There have been numerous studies performed over the past few decades which show a strong correlation between depression symptoms and obstructive sleep apnea. In fact, some studies have shown that more than 25% of men who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea have also recently sought treatment for depression from a psychologist or psychiatrist. 

Still, other studies have shown that while many sleep apnea sufferers do not consider themselves to be depressed, as much as fifty percent of them actually show some or all of the signs of having moderate to severe depression. 

sleep apnea and depressionNonetheless, there have also been many studies which have shown no direct correlation between the two, but a lot of this depends on the sample size and the reporting methods used. Another thing that makes it hard to determine the link between the two is that the majority of sleep apnea sufferers, as much as 75%, have never been properly diagnosed, making it that much harder to determine the link between the two. 

However, a recent US government study seems to have finally found definitive evidence that there is a direct link between the two disorders. This study, published by the US Center for Disease Control, was one of the first to use a truly representative sample of the US adult population and surveyed nearly 10,000 adults


The study found that men and women who reported choking, coughing, or snorting several times a week while sleeping, even if they had never been diagnosed with sleep apnea, were more than five times as likely to show symptoms of moderate to severe depression than those who did not show any symptoms of sleep apnea. 


Other psychiatric studies have actually shown a similar, albeit the other way around! One such study showed that those individuals suffering from depression were five times more likely to develop a sleep disordered breathing syndrome such as sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea and Depression: Chicken or the Egg?

When looking at the link between depression and sleep apnea, one common question that comes up is whether it is the sleep apnea causing the symptoms of depression or the other way around. Well, this is actually a chicken and egg type question, and despite large amounts of research into the area, it is still hard to determine which condition is responsible for the other and how they are linked. 

Still, most researchers and sleep specialists believe that the sleep apnea is responsible for the depression due to lowered levels of oxygen reaching the brain. However, this is still only a hypothesis and as of yet there is still not a single study which has determined which condition is responsible for the other one.

Can Sleep Apnea Treatment Help to Relieve Symptoms of Depression?

Even though some people still debate the connection between the two conditions, and there is no evidence to determine which condition is responsible for the other, there is actually quite a bit of evidence to suggest that treatment for sleep apnea can help to alleviate most symptoms of depression. 

sleep apnea and depressionA recent study performed by the Cleveland Clinic and presented at the SLEEP2012 Conference showed that people who are undergoing sleep apnea treatment are much less likely to show symptoms of depression. 

This study used a psychiatric test known as PHQ-9, which is a self-report survey designed to measure symptoms of depression, to determine whether or not people undergoing sleep apnea treatment showed less symptoms of being depressed. 

The results were actually quite surprising, as they showed that as soon as a person starts a sleep apnea treatment, they in turn perform much better on the PHQ-9 test. 

This study also showed that the more frequently and the longer a person undergoes a sleep apnea treatment also resulted in decreased levels of depression. This study and other similar studies have even shown sleep apnea treatment to have at least as much of an effect on depression as taking anti-depressants, with none of the side effects that come with them.

What Can You Do If You’re Experiencing Sleep Apnea and Depression?

If you feel depressed, it could possibly be a consequence of sleep apnea, but the problem is that your psychiatrist is not likely to recommend that you see a sleep specialist. Nonetheless, this is exactly what we are recommending, especially if you also constantly feel tired or fatigued, as your depression could be caused by sleep apnea. 

When visiting a sleep specialist, you will most likely have to undergo a polysomnogram or sleep study which will monitor your vital signs while sleeping to determine if you are indeed suffering from sleep apnea or another sleeping disorder. 

sleep apnea and depressionIf the sleep study determines that you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, then your doctor or sleep specialist will most likely recommend the use of a CPAP machine to treat your sleeping disorder. This machine blows a continuous stream of air pressure into your nose, or mouth and nose, which will force air past the obstructions and into your lungs. 

This will have the effect of regulating your breathing during sleep and also ensures your blood oxygen concentration level remains stable. 

This should help to make sure you sleep more soundly and get the rest you need, and it may also have a positive effect on your depression as well.

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