If you’ve ever felt like you could nod off at your desk during the day, think about this. You may not just be sleepy—you may be dangerously ill.

“Sleep apnea is known to make high blood pressure worse. It’s known to make cardiac arrhythmias worse,” says Dalia Lorenzo, M.D., assistant professor of neurology in the Miller School of Medicine’s Sleep Disorders Center.

Apnea is a breathing-related sleep disorder, characterized by snoring or difficulty breathing, often resulting in somebody being jarred out of their sleep gasping for breath. Physicians have known for years that apnea can disrupt sleep, leaving people exhausted. But only recently have they found a direct link between apnea and hypertension.

“Probably the greatest difficulty is just under-recognition of the problems, and I would say that’s particularly true in relation to high blood pressure and individuals who are overweight,” says Bruce A. Nolan, M.D., F.A.C.P., director of the Sleep Disorders Center. And the American population is—literally—growing. The National Institutes of Health reports that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. More obesity means more sleep apnea, especially in men who tend to gather more weight in their upper bodies and necks.

To meet the growing demand, the Sleep Disorders Center has expanded. A new four-bed facility features all new equipment and furniture in the National Parkinson’s Foundation Building to complement a similar four-bed facility at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Both facilities can diagnose apnea, restless leg syndrome, and other sleep disorders.

The mission now is to educate people, both in the general populace and in the health care community. “Maybe one in 20 men in the general population will have significant sleep apnea,” Nolan says. “The number for women is about one in 40.”

The good news is that sleep apnea can be easily fixed without surgery or medication.

But many people turn to sleeping pills for sleep apnea, which can be dangerous. “When the body doesn’t receive enough oxygen in the brain and heart and kidneys, your body sends you a little rush of adrenalin so that you’ll wake up and breathe,” explains Lorenzo. “But if you give yourself a sleeping pill you make it difficult for the brain to wake you.”

Breathing may stay obstructed or slowed. Patients in that situation aren’t only sleep deprived, they’re oxygen deprived.

“Breathing lower levels of oxygen is kind of like running your vehicle on low-octane fuel,” says Nolan. “You can do it, and you may not notice any real noticeable change in the short run. But over the longer period of time the internal system just doesn’t work as well.”

That’s why Nolan wants primary care physicians to make the connection between weight, hypertension, and apnea. It’s as simple as asking overweight patients whether they’re sleepy during the day and whether they snore.

“There are people who do sleep normally,” says Nolan, with a laugh.

The newly expanded UM Sleep Disorders Center is for everyone else.