Your brain is a little like the CPU in your computer. When your CPU is on the fritz, your computer programs won’t work, your screen won’t even turn on. If your brain isn’t working well because it’s deprived of oxygen, then the rest of your body is going to suffer. That’s how sleep-disordered breathing can lead to a host of serious or deadly diseases. Among them? Cancer.

In high school, in 1968, I wrote a nationally recognized paper titled Cancer: An Enigma.” I wrote it at a time when President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, saying it would be cured within 10 years. Fifty years later, we’re still battling the deadly disease. With all of the attention and money that’s being driven into prevention, there is still not a clear cure from the medical perspective

For most of that time, no one pointed to sleep-breathing disorders as a cause. But over time, evidence has begun to surface.

A study published in 2012 actually found a link between sleep apnea and cancer death. Apnea is a complete collapse of the airway that causes the sufferer to stop breathing for at least 10 seconds during sleep. That disruption in breathing ultimately arouses the sleeper from their sleep and causes a drop in oxygen levels. In a body deprived of oxygen, cancer cells thrive because in an effort to get oxygen, they grow additional blood vessels, a process known as angiogenesis. Those growing blood vessels spread the tumor. To combat those growing tumors, some countries today actually offer hyperbaric ozone treatment to flood the body with oxygen.

Sleep disorders can cause significant problems in the body at the cellular level by disrupting what’s known as the gene duplication sequence. Your body’s genes are constantly duplicating. But before a gene duplicates, it takes a picture” of the existing script, or DNA, which it then uses to produce new, healthy genes. A lack of appropriate levels of oxygen in your body can disrupt that duplication process. The result? Your healthy genes can duplicate into unhealthy genes.

The severity of sleep apnea is measured based on the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI). Currently, fewer than five pauses per hour is considered to be normal breathing.

According to the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI), sleep apnea is only considered to be present when there are five or more pauses per hour:

  • 0 4 = within normal limit
  • 5 14 = mild apnea
  • 15 29 = moderate apnea
  • 30+ = severe apnea
  • 45+ = extremely severe

People who have severe sleep apnea, or 30 or more breaks in breathing during one hour of sleep, have a risk of cancer death nearly five times greater than someone without sleep apnea.

Lack of sleep is one of the biggest epidemics facing the U.S. today, although it has yet to be identified as such. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., behind cardiovascular disease. Sleep apnea doesn’t even make the list of killers yet, even though it’s clear that it is a contributing factor.

There is hope. Treatments are available for sleep apnea, helping you breathe better at night to get the rest—and the oxygen—you need.