Men's sleep apnea found alongside erectile problems

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Men who are sound sleepers have better sex lives.

A study published in a recent edition of Urology says men who suffer from sleep apnea syndrome also suffer a high rate of erectile dysfunction.

Sleep apnea is a condition in which a sleeping person repeatedly quits breathing, often for a minute or longer. The American Sleep Apnea Association said sufferers stop breathing sometimes hundreds of times each night.

Disrupted sleep patterns have been associated with various health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease and even Type II diabetes

The study, conducted at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, adds erectile dysfunction to that list.

But the study did find that the more severe the case of sleep apnea syndrome, the more serious the erectile dysfunction.

Dr. Charles Atwood, an associate director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sleep Medicine Center, said other studies have suggested a link between sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction.

"If you are a man with erectile dysfunction, you should talk to your doctor to find out whether sleep apnea can be a factor," he said.

Although the study found a close association between sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction, it did not conclude why sleep apnea could lead to erection problems for men.

One theory, Dr. Atwood said, suggests that sleep apnea disrupts rapid-eye-movement or REM sleep -- a time when men routinely experience erections. Decreased REM sleep means fewer REM erections.

The possibility exists, he said, that REM erections are a necessary process for men to maintain healthy sexual function.

Diagnosing sleep apnea requires a patient to spend one night in a special clinic to diagnose breathing disruptions during sleep.

Dr. Atwood said men who receive treatment for sleep apnea often experience improvements in sexual function.

"Sleep apnea can be treated," he said. "The treatment generally is not a cure, but it does restore people to good function."

"Apnea" is the Greek word for "without breath."

Dr. Atwood described two types of sleep apnea -- obstructive and central. Obstructive is the most common and often results from weight gain.

The obstruction occurs when soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks the airway during sleep. Dr. Atwood said cranial or facial variations, even in slim, healthy people, can restrict the airway, leading to sleep apnea.

In central sleep apnea, the airway is not blocked but the brain fails to signal the respiratory muscles to breathe properly.

In either case, the brain briefly rouses the person to resume breathing, but it results in fragmented or low-quality sleep.

The ASAA said sleep apnea is as common as Type II diabetes and affects more than 12 million Americans.

Risk factors include being male, overweight and over the age of 40. Sleep apnea also has been linked to memory problems, weight gain, headaches, poor job performance and motor vehicle crashes.

The Cornell study noted that previous research suggested a link between sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction.

To test that idea, researchers studied men with symptoms consistent with sleep apnea and its severity. The men also were tested for erectile dysfunction through a standardized index.

The study of 50 men showed that 60 percent had abnormal sleep patterns. Of those men, 80 percent had problems having or maintaining erections.

The study concluded that men with symptoms consistent with sleep apnea have a significant risk of erectile dysfunction, with a strong correlation between the severity of the two.

Dr. Atwood, who wasn't involved in the study, said there's a similar association between sleep apnea and Type II diabetes. Treatment of sleep apnea, he said, can reduce insulin resistance in diabetes and improve control, independent of weight loss.

Type II diabetics also should ask their doctors whether sleep apnea could be a factor, he said.

"Over the past few years, there is a steadily growing number of medical conditions associated with obstructive sleep apnea," he said. "Lifestyle changes are important, but losing weight is most important."

David Templeton can be reached at or 412-263-1578.


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