Cancer & sleep apnea: The blood oxygen compromise

Sometimes it may seem as if every chronic health concern can be traced back to untreated sleep apnea.

And in many ways, that's not an unrealistic conclusion, given what we know about sleep breathing disorders and how they systemically influence all the different biological processes we undergo as human beings. 

But is it true that untreated sleep apnea can compromise the body so much that it creates the proper conditions for supporting the growth and spread of tumors? 

Sleep is a whole-body process with a unique relationship to each and every system in the body. Poor sleep ultimately leads to system disruption, and with enough system disruption, all kinds of chronic disease can settle in and flourish.

Cancer seems to have a direct relationship to untreated sleep apnea, with some researchers suggesting that one of the main problems with sleep apnea—nocturnal intermittent hypoxia—is mostly to blame for the greater resistance by cancer cells to therapies (i.e. radiation). 

 What the research says 

Several recent studies have come to this very conclusion. Here's a timeline to ponder:  

How can sleep apnea influence cancer?

Sleep apnea leads to neurochemical imbalances. When poor sleep is the result of any untreated sleep disorder, the neurochemical balance that a whole-body process like sleep requires is disrupted.


Two of the key hormones that fall out of balance—cortisol and melatonin—are critical for maintaining a healthy immune system (cortisol) and for regulating the body's circadian system (melatonin). In addition, this neurochemical balance can lead to body-wide (systemic) inflammation.

How does this relate to cancer?


Sleep apnea causes sustained low blood oxygen. One of the biggest problems with sleep apnea is the way in which it deprives the body of necessary oxygen.

Frequent apneas (pauses in breathing that last at least 10 seconds, but often last much longer) lead to something called nocturnal intermittent hypoxia. 

How does this relate to cancer?

Sleep apnea can lead to increased pain sensitivity. If you suffer from frequent arousals at night—which ultimately leads to fragmented sleep, or sleep deprivation—you are more likely to experience more feelings of pain the following day. Poor sleep leads to a higher sensitivity to or perception of pain.

How does this relate to cancer?

Sleep apnea is associated with depression. Poor sleep is a well-known risk factor for the development of mood disorders or the aggravation of preexisting depression.

How does this relate to cancer?

Should you be concerned? 


It seems Americans already are concerned about cancer, more than any other chronic illness or condition.

The Mayo Clinic National Health Checkup reported just this month that cancer is still a far higher medical concern for most Americans, topping even the Zika virus. 

Meanwhile, in the same report, it was revealed that only half of all Americans get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night (for whatever reason).

Considering that as many as 28 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea (diagnosed or not), it seems like a good place to start when addressing concerns about the development of cancer. 

Sleep apnea also has proven associations with many other chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. 

Researchers admit more research must be done to identify the links between sleep apnea and cancer. However, the first line treatment for most sleep breathing disorders is still continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which research from the Wisconsin Cohort study shows is extremely helpful for cancer survival in those patients who are using it to treat sleep apnea.


American Sleep Apnea Association
Centers for Disease Control
Mayo Clinic
National Institutes of Health
National Sleep Foundation
The New York Times
Wisconsin Cohort Study
World Health Organization

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