Is there a connection?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing during sleep. It can lead to insomnia, fatigue, and headaches, which can affect your day-to-day life. Recent research also shows that sleep apnea can cause depression.

An estimated 18 million Americans have sleep apnea and 15 million adults are estimated to have a major depressive episode every year. So a significant number of the population could be affected by both conditions.

What does the research say?

There is a correlation between sleep and mood, and lack of sleep and depression. Some people experience an onset of symptoms from both conditions at the same time, while others experience sleep deprivation before depression. Both conditions share risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing either condition uniquely.

While research shows that insomnia is tied to depression, one study found that insomnia related to sleep maintenance — like sleep apnea — had the largest correlation to depression and anxiety.

Another study found that about 46 percent of people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) had depressive symptoms.

Symptoms of depression vs. symptoms of sleep apnea

Symptoms of depression and sleep apnea can sometimes overlap, making it difficult for people experiencing one to realize they’re also experiencing the other. This is especially true because depression can be a symptom of sleep apnea.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • loud snoring
  • breathing cessation while sleeping, which may wake you up or be noticed by another person
  • waking up abruptly and feeling short of breath
  • attention problems
  • excessive tiredness during the day
  • morning headaches
  • sore throat or dry mouth upon waking
  • irritability
  • difficulty sleeping

Symptoms of depression include:

  • irritability, frustration, and anger over small issues
  • feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • changes in appetite
  • sleep disturbances, like insomnia
  • fatigue and tiredness
  • trouble thinking or concentrating
  • headaches

The key to a differential diagnosis is to first determine if you have sleep apnea, as the sleep apnea may be causing or contributing to your depression.

Make an appointment with your primary doctor. They will refer you to a sleep clinic, where you’ll have your sleep evaluated overnight. If the healthcare providers there don’t think you have sleep apnea, they can refer you to a therapist to talk about your depression.

How to cope

In some cases, treating sleep apnea may help treat depression or reduce its symptoms, especially if it contributes to or causes the depression.

You can use some methods to start treating both conditions at home, before you even see a doctor. Home treatment for a combination of sleep apnea and depression could include:

  • Exercising regularly: This can help alleviate depression and help with weight loss. Weight loss can ease OSA caused by being overweight
  • Avoiding sleeping on your back: When you sleep on your back, your tongue may block your airway. Try sleeping on your side or stomach instead
  • Avoiding alcohol: Drinking can make both depression and sleep apnea worse.
  • Avoiding sleeping pills: They don’t help sleep apnea and can cause depression in some people.

In a large number of cases, improving the amount and quality of your sleep can help to treat depression and other conditions like anxiety in addition to easing sleep apnea.

If you’re struggling with either sleep apnea or depression, or both, and home treatment isn’t helping, make an appointment to see your doctor. High-quality sleep isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. And improved sleep and reduced depression will improve your overall health and your quality of life all at once.