Sleep Apnea and Erectile Dysfunction

Anyone who has slept beside a person with untreated sleep apnea can attest to its dramatic symptoms. Pauses in breathing last from seconds to minutes, and might be accompanied by gasping, choking or snorting sounds. As the causes and effects of this condition continue to be studied, a surprising connection between sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction is emerging.

What is sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of the condition.

  • During sleep, the muscles in the back of the throat relax so much that they block the upper airway.
  • Once the brain senses that normal breathing has stopped, it wakes the affected person in order to resume breathing.
  • Although a person with sleep apnea is being stirred from sleep to breathe, they usually have no conscious memory of this brief period of wakefulness.

Who is at risk?

Anyone could have sleep apnea, but it’s more common in people who are:

  • Overweight
  • Diabetic
  • Smokers
  • Have narrowed airways or asthma

Major complications

The most immediate complication from sleep apnea is how disrupted sleep affects waking life. People with the condition are often severely fatigued during the day. They might fall asleep while working, operating machinery, or driving.

When people with sleep apnea stop breathing at night, their blood oxygen levels drop. Left untreated, this an increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and even heart failure.

Sleep Apnea and Erectile Dysfunction

As researchers continue to look at connections between sleep apnea and heart disease, they’re also finding a connection between sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction.  

In 2009, German researchers investigating the link between these two conditions found that 69 percent of study participants with sleep apnea also had erectile dysfunction. Another study discovered that patients with erectile dysfunction were more than twice as likely to have obstructive sleep apnea, and that men with more severe erectile dysfunction were even more likely to have the sleep disorder.

There are a few theories for why these two conditions are linked:

  • Sleep Deprivation – Not only does feeling fatigued all day take a toll on libido, but inadequate sleep can affect testosterone production which contributes to ED.
  • Oxygen Deprivation – Interrupted breathing in sleep apnea results in low blood oxygen levels. These low oxygen levels might affect spontaneous night-time erections, which seem to be important for maintaining regular erectile activity.
  • No Direct Link – Because erectile dysfunction and sleep apnea are both linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, it could be that there is no direct relationship between the two.

Is there treatment available?

Thankfully, there are treatments that can enhance the sex lives of men with both conditions. Using a CPAP machine at night — a device that uses air pressure to keep the upper airway from collapsing during sleep — has been shown to improve sexual function for men with sleep apnea. Erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra have also proven to be effective in men with sleep apnea, and are safe for many men to use.

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