Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) involves the endocrine system and affects around 5 million women in the United States. There are many difficult symptoms of PCOS, and many of those have to do with a woman’s reproductive health. However, that’s not the only negative side-effect PCOS can cause. Polycystic ovarian syndrome can lead to abnormal hair growth, hair loss, weight gain, acne, mood swings, and even sleep problems.
Though there are several sleep complications associated with PCOS, sleep apnea is one of the primary ones I see linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome. In fact, women with PCOS are 5-10 times more likely to develop sleep apnea over a healthy person. Sleep apnea is potentially life threatening, so this disorder is one to be taken seriously, especially since it often goes undiagnosed.
To help you understand this long-term complication of PCOS, I’m dedicating this whole post to sleep apnea. I’ll walk you through what it is, how it’s linked to PCOS, and how you can treat sleep apnea if you develop it. Here’s what you need to know about PCOS and sleep apnea:
How Are PCOS and Sleep Apnea Related?
For a while, PCOS and sleep apnea were not recognized as related conditions. But, in recent years, as research has improved and the number of women with PCOS has increased, researchers have started to identify a correlation between sleeping problems and struggles with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Before we get too deep in the connection, though, let’s go over what sleep apnea is:
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition where your breathing stops and restarts repeatedly while you sleep. It can prevent your body from getting adequate oxygen throughout the night. This doesn’t just cause loud snoring, it makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep and increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
There are two types of sleep apnea. One type is “obstructive sleep apnea” where the upper airway is blocked while you sleep, reducing or stopping airflow. It could be blocked because of obesity, enlarged tonsils, or hormone changes. The second type is “central sleep apnea” where your brain does not send breathing signals to the lungs. Women with PCOS experience obstructive sleep apnea.
Women in general are often underdiagnosed with sleep apnea, because sleep apnea in women manifests itself differently than men. If you’re falling asleep during the day, struggling with depression, experiencing nightmares and hallucinations, or any of the other symptoms listed below, you could be experiencing sleep apnea. Contact your doctor and investigate other symptoms of sleep apnea:
Sleep Apnea Symptoms in Women with PCOS
- Dry Mouth
- High Blood Pressure
- Restless Legs
How Does PCOS Cause Sleep Apnea?
The connection between PCOS and sleep apnea hasn’t been definitively concluded, but research is showing that insulin resistance and/or hormone imbalance may be the cause. Insulin resistance is a common comorbidity with PCOS, and it can cause erratic blood sugar levels and obesity. The dips in blood sugar may be waking you up in the middle of the night and making it hard to go back to sleep. And, excess tissue from obesity could be blocking your airways.
Other studies show that PCOS may cause sleep apnea because of imbalanced male and female hormones. The high androgen and low estrogen levels seem to increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea. Even more, sleep deprivation from sleep apnea can worsen hormone imbalance and insulin resistance. It’s a terrible cycle that makes treating sleep apnea difficult.
How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?
CPAP and Other Airway Pressure Devices
An airway pressure device is one of the primary sleep apnea treatment options for moderate to severe cases. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, a bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) machine, or an adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) machine ensures you receive enough oxygen to get a good night’s sleep and keep your body healthy. However, they are known to be bulky and uncomfortable, making it a potentially difficult treatment to get used to for some people.
To prevent blockage, sometimes an oral appliance can be used to keep your throat open. They’re not as effective as CPAP, but they are easier to use and more comfortable. You can get fitted for an oral appliance with your dentist.
If you’re struggling with sleep apnea, do not take sleeping pills! These will not help you sleep better at night if your sleeping problems are due to a breathing issue. However, if you see your doctor or a sleep specialist, they may be able to prescribe medications, like acetazolamide, that’ll help manage your breathing.
Surgery is only used when other treatment options have failed. Tissue removal, tissue shrinkage, jaw repositioning, nerve stimulation, and implants can all be effective procedures to keep your airways sufficiently open. In severe cases, sometimes a tracheostomy is needed, where a surgeon makes an opening in your neck for breathing. Again, this is only in extreme circumstances where all else has failed and the sleep apnea is putting your health at great risk.
Reversing Your PCOS
One of the best ways to truly treat sleep apnea is to treat the medical problem causing the disorder. In the case that PCOS is likely the reason for your sleep apnea, healing your polycystic ovary syndrome may help you get back to breathing easy and sleeping well.
There is no cure for PCOS, but there are ways of naturally reversing your symptoms. Eating an anti-inflammatory, gluten- and dairy-free diet could be very helpful. Plus, there are quite a few PCOS fighting foods that can give you a boost!
If you’re battling severe chronic symptoms and complications, avoid alcohol and caffeine for the most part as well. All in all, the right diet can help balance hormones, encourage weight loss, and regulate your body for better sleep (and better overall health.)
In addition to eating a PCOS-friendly diet, slow-weighted exercise, the right vitamins and supplements, and an emphasis on self-care can support your healing journey. As you experience fewer symptoms and your body regulates, you could see an improvement in your sleep apnea!
For more help and support as you work toward reversing your PCOS, join The Cysterhood. It’s a community of women like you, learning to reverse PCOS, lose weight and thrive. And, if reversing your PCOS does indeed improve your symptoms of sleep apnea, be sure to let other Cysters know in the comments below!
Research indicates sleep apnea and PCOS may be related.
Sleep apnea is one of the many potential long-term complications of PCOS that could carry big consequences. However, if PCOS is the reason for your sleep apnea, naturally managing and reversing your symptoms could give you relief from the effects of sleep apnea. And, as you get more rest, you’ll see improvements in other areas of PCOS as well! Follow our blog and podcast for more ways to heal your body naturally.