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The Link Between Hypothyroidism and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is the medical name for when a person frequently wakes up  because of the inability to breath. There are many diseases or conditions that can cause this, but the most common is obesity.  Hypothyroidism is when there are insufficient amounts of thyroid hormones being produced.  Hypothyroidism causes many symptoms throughout the body including fatigue, weight gain and poor muscle tone.  The two most common causes of hypothyroidism are an insufficient amount of iodine in the diet and childbirth.  Many women develop this condition within a year of giving birth.

If the sleep apnea occurs frequently, it will obviously have a profound effect on the ability of the person to function the next day and can lead to major medical issues if it persists.  In many situations, the person is not even aware that they are being forced awake because of breathing problems.  In most situations, sleep apnea is caused by a structural blockage of trachea, usually by the tongue.


The link between sleep apnea and hypothyroidism is related to one of the minor symptoms of hypothyroidism, swelling of the tongue, mouth and throat.  When sleeping in the prone position on the back, the throat and mouth already have reduced capacity to allow air through, but it is made much worse because of the swollen tongue.  It is easy for the tongue to completely block breathing, which forces the body to wake up the individual. Unfortunately, in many individuals this is not enough to make them change positions, so they rapidly go back to sleep in the same position and the blockage repeats itself.

Hypothyroidism can cause feeling of fatigue and muscle weakness, which is compounded when the person also is not sleeping properly.  Hypothyroidism and sleep apnea are also linked because a frequent symptom of hypothyroidism is rapid weight gain leading to obesity and obesity is a leading cause of sleep apnea even in individuals without hypothyroidism. There doesn´t seem to be any connection between people experiencing sleep apnea later developing hypothyroidism, instead it appears that sleep apnea is just a frequent symptom of hypothyroidism.

Because sleep apnea is usually a symptom of some disorder or obesity, sleep apnea is usually not treated directly, instead the treatment is aimed at relieving the underlying condition. In the case of hypothyroidism and sleep apnea, the hypothyroidism is treated with dietary changes and iodine supplements or else the individual is prescribed Thyroxine, which is the most important thyroid hormone.  Thyroxine treatment can be difficult because of the uniqueness of individuals.  It usually takes months, sometimes years for the correct dosage to be determined, and in that time the person can swing wildly in their energy levels.

The link between sleep apnea and hypothyroidism is mainly that hypothyroidism causes swelling of the tongue and throat, which makes it much more likely for obstruction to occur.  Hypothyroidism can also cause weight gain and obesity, which is frequently associated with sleep apnea.  No research has yet indicated that sleep apnea can cause hypothyroidism.

Reviewed: Peter Sedesse, MD




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