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Opioids and Sleep: Sleep Apnea, Disordered Breathing, and Other Harmful Effects

Opioid Use and Sleep Disorders

With the increase in opioid use, there has also been a growing number of cases of sleep disorders. Particularly in those who have misused opioids, rates of sleep apnea and disordered breathing have developed at an alarming rate.

What kind of connection could there be between opioids and disorders like obstructive sleep apnea? Here is how this prescription drug is connected to different apneas, disordered breathing, and other dangerous health problems.

Reasons Behind Opioid Addiction

Why are these drugs so addictive? Opioids release a large number of endorphins into your brain, making you feel happier and lessening pain. However, the effects are not permanent and the withdrawal from these feelings is what begins an addiction.

After you’ve taken opioids for long periods of time, your body starts to produce fewer endorphins naturally. Since doctors won’t often increase or renew an opioid prescription, people often turn to street drugs as replacements. This is why heroin and fentanyl use has become so high – because they don’t require a prescription and are much more potent.

The Current State of the Opioid Crisis

Since they were created in the 1990s, there has been an addiction problem surrounding opioids. Though pharmaceutical companies marketed them as an addiction-free alternative to morphine, this wasn’t the case. Once doctors began prescribing opioids, it took a few years to recognize how much of a problem they were causing.

Since the 1990s, there have been two other waves of the opioid crisis. In 2010, the use of heroin greatly increased, along with the rate of overdoses. In 2013, the use of fentanyl skyrocketed. Because of its effects, potency, and cheapness, this drug has been making the rounds in many communities.

Do Opioids Cause Disordered Breathing?

There is plenty of emerging research on the links between disordered breathing and opioid use. These drugs impact your breathing patterns negatively and will cause the amount of oxygen found in your blood to decrease. This can lead to respiratory depression, meaning your body isn’t releasing enough carbon dioxide as you breathe.

Opioids do this by affecting how the brain signals your muscles to breathe. While fewer than 150 cells in your brain are sensitive to these drugs, they can clearly have a huge impact. The problem is, these neurons are located where you create breathing rhythms, and opioids cause them to function ineffectively.

Sleep Disorders and Opioids

Misuse of opioids can also make you extremely tired. A report published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that opioids make your sleeping patterns worse in multiple ways. They make you sleep less effectively, altering how rested you feel the next day. Sleep also plays a big part in human memory function.

REM sleep and slow-wave sleep are both crucial for forming memories. Clinical studies have shown that opioids reduce how much of these kinds of sleep you’re getting. This means these drugs are affecting both your sleep and your memory, which may lead to less-positive moods.

Opioids and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when your throat muscles are too relaxed to promote healthy breathing. As these muscles soften, they can narrow or block your airway. This can cause you to stop breathing as you sleep.

Different studies show alternate results on the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and opioids. While some research finds a link, others didn’t locate any links. However, there is a possibility that opioids are causing too many muscles to relax, affecting your ability to breathe as you sleep.

Can Opioids Cause Central Sleep Apnea?

Central sleep apnea happens when your breathing repeatedly stops and restarts as you’re sleeping. This is because your brain is not sending the right signals, causing the muscles controlling your breathing to function improperly. While doctors debate whether opioids cause obstructive sleep apnea, there may be a connection between them and central sleep apnea.

Research conducted by the International Anaesthesia Research Society (IARS) found nearly a fourth of surveyed patients had central sleep apnea in combination with opioid use. They discovered that those taking the equivalent of 200 milligrams of morphine were at the highest risk. Additionally, the IARS concluded the most common form of sleep apnea treatment – continuous airway pressure – was not effective in treating these patients.

How Sleep Disorders Affect You

Not getting enough sleep can negatively impact your brain. Poor sleep can lead to mood changes like irritability and depression and affect your ability to store memories. Additionally, those lacking sleep can have worse reaction times, which puts them at a higher risk for accidents at work and on the road. Further consequences can include physical problems like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

The effects of untreated sleep apnea can be dire. Because this breathing disorder causes lower oxygen levels and different chest pressure, it can lead to a multitude of health problems such as:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack and heart failure
  • Hypertension
  • Enlargement of the heart
  • Arrhythmia

This is why it is crucial to seek medical attention if you are experiencing symptoms of obstructive or central sleep apnea. Left untreated, these disorders could have far worse outcomes.

Ways to Overcome Opioid Use

If you or a loved one is looking to change your relationship with opioids and sleep, here are some tips on how to do so.

1.   Practice Self-Care

Because of how poor sleep can affect you, you may be feeling more negatively than usual. Knowing how to speak positively to yourself can actually change how your mind thinks and processes information.

Sometimes, you need to look at a situation from all angles before deciding on a perspective to take. If your first reactions and thoughts tend to be negative, try out dialectic thinking for a better mindset and to care for yourself.

2.   Help Fight the Stigma

Because they may fear the reactions of others, someone with an addiction of any kind might hesitate to seek help.

You can help change this by offering your support. Addiction and relapse do not mean you’re a bad person – they are medical conditions you need help with. Anyone with substance misuse struggles should know there are people who can help. Seeking treatment is always the best option.

3.   Keep Naloxone With You

Naloxone is a life-saving injection or nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. A study by the CDC found that, in nearly 40% of overdose death cases, there was a bystander present. Because of such a high number, they recommended more of the public should be trained and given easier access to naloxone.

Search for how to find naloxone in your state, read about how to administer it, and carry it with you at all times.

The Effects of Opioids on Sleep

There is clear evidence showing how opioids can cause sleep apnea and disordered breathing. If you leave these conditions untreated, they could lead to increasingly worse health problems and poor mental health. However, there are always options for recovery out there. Speak with your loved ones about opioid use and find resources to get help.

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