Undiagnosed Sleep Apnea Might Be Why You're Drowsy All Day

Despite being one of the most common sleep disorders around, sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed and unnoticed due to a lack of awareness regarding its signs and symptoms.

When untreated, it not only disturbs sleep patterns, it increases risk of several serious health conditions. Another side effect is feeling drowsy and fatigued during the day, potentially to the detriment of your ability to work effectively and drive safely.

Sleep apnea is commonly thought to affect only older or overweight individuals. The reality is the condition can affect young and old, male and female, those out of shape and the super fit, so awareness of the signs and effects is important for everyone.

The basics of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a condition where a person stops breathing for a period of time during sleep, often occurring several times during the night. It can be due to physical blockage in the back of the throat, a miscommunication between the nervous system and muscles, or both.

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, an estimated 22 million Americans experience sleep apnea. What’s more surprising is that they also estimate that 80 percent of moderate and severe cases go undiagnosed.

For many people it’s easy to miss because the interrupted breathing often doesn’t fully wake the sleeper. Other people just assume they are simply heavy snorers and that it’s innocuous.

However, sleep apnea is much more than snoring. It comes with serious health concerns. A 2008 study on the epidemiology of sleep apnea suggests the more common obstructive type (OSA) is associated with higher risks of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart failure, arrhythmia, type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.

Related: Sleep Deprivation Is Killing You and Your Career

How it affects your waking hours.

Untreated sleep apnea can also impact your day-to-day quality of life by impairing cognitive function, decision making, mood and more. Sleep apnea is particularly disruptive during REM sleep, which plays a role in creativity, learning, memory and other mental functions. One 2014 study found that REM sleep disruption in OSA patients impaired spatial memory.

Motor skills and processing speed can be affected by lower levels of blood oxygen, which can result from interrupted breathing during rest. Diverse studies have found impairment to other aspects of neurological function and quality of life, as well. So far, potential links have been seen between sleep apnea and impaired general intellectual and executive function, vigilance, concentration and alertness.

Among people with OSA, risks of depression and anxiety are also slightly higher, though CPAP treatment can significantly reduce symptoms.

Overall, fatigue combined with impaired memory, mood and cognition can affect productivity in many ways, from making it harder to focus on a task to difficulty remembering information. While the idea is somewhat subjective, a 2010 study found that daytime sleepiness did have a negative effect on work productivity in otherwise healthy OSA patients. Other research found reported work productivity improved following treatment programs.

Related: To Really Shine at Work, How Much Sleep Is Required?

Feeling drowsy and distracted isn’t just bad for work though, it can also make driving more dangerous for everyone on the road. Drowsy driving is associated with thousands of accidents each year. Research suggests that untreated sleep apnea significantly increases risks of near-misses and accidents, particularly for men. Prior work also noted increased risk of accidents and more severe injury in people with sleep apnea.

Boost your sleep apnea awareness.

One of the best ways to avoid the side effects of sleep apnea is being aware of the signs and catching it early. Sleep apnea has a higher prevalence among people who are overweight or elderly, and is slightly higher in men, but it’s important to keep in mind that it can affect anyone, even children.

I was diagnosed with OSA when I was in college, despite being very fit and otherwise healthy. I started noticing that my heartbeat felt irregular, I would feel tired during the day, and sometimes it would be hard to focus. When it started affecting my life and work performance, I decided to seek treatment from a doctor and observed major improvements.

For many people, the only indication they may notice is feeling sluggish or fatigued during the day, which is easy to attribute to innumerable causes. You might find yourself dozing off at your desk, finding it hard to focus your attention on work, or getting sleepy early on in the evening.

Other potential symptoms listed by the Mayo Clinic include waking up gasping for air, waking up with a dry or sore throat, morning headaches, frequently waking, and difficulty concentrating. If you notice that your partner stops breathing, wakes up abruptly or snores heavily, consider bringing it their attention, as they may not be aware.

If you do suspect sleep apnea, discuss it with your doctor or see a sleep specialist. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute offers a few pointers about what to mention and what to expect during an appointment.

Don’t ignore symptoms or assume you have to settle with feeling tired or foggy all day. There are a variety of treatments available, ranging from lifestyle changes to breathing devices. Getting healthy sleep can make a world of difference at work and for quality of life and health, as well.

Related: Sleep: Why Successful Entrepreneurs Snooze More and Work Less