Sleep Apnea and Weight Loss

Doctors and sleep specialists have long known that sleep apnea places their patients at a higher risk of issues like high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke and that obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea. Fortunately, these risks can be mitigated with the right treatment and lifestyle changes. What is sleep apnea, and how does it correlate to weight?

What is sleep apnea?

During sleep, various factors can disrupt breathing. They might alter the rhythm or regularity of breaths, or even cause someone to stop breathing for a period of time. Apnea describes a condition where breathing stops periodically, sometimes hundreds of times in a single night. The lowered oxygen levels in the blood and interrupted sleep contribute to several serious health conditions. Symptoms vary but may include problems like snoring, daytime sleepiness, depression, irritability, and trouble staying asleep.

How does weight impact obstructive sleep apnea?

Apnea can be triggered by several different things, including the disruption of breathing signals to and from the brain caused by nervous system disorders. More commonly, it is of the type known as “obstructive sleep apnea,” and caused by something getting in the way of proper airflow. While not all patients with obstructive sleep apnea are obese, obesity is a known contributing factor.

Carrying too much weight places increased demands on the heart and lungs in order to keep the body properly oxygenated. During sleep, the muscles in the throat relax. Extra weight can place more pressure in this area, further narrowing breathing passages. Factors like narrow airways, a highly arched palate, a large neck circumference, or a large tongue or tonsils can also contribute.

How does losing weight help?

Losing weight can be an effective long term remedy for sleep apnea. In a 2009 study by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, researchers placed subjects on a calorie restricted diet. The experimental group consisted of 60 men who were overweight and suffering from moderate-to-severe sleep apnea. After losing an average of 40 pounds, the subjects saw an overall 58% decrease in sleep apnea symptoms. Though these study participants were placed on an extreme diet for experimental purposes, even a moderate diet and weight loss help relieve some of the pressure placed on airways.

What lifestyle changes can improve sleep apnea symptoms?

Regular exercise not only helps improve heart and lung efficiency, but it also contributes to increasing metabolism and creating calorie deficits that aid weight loss. When exercise is combined with a healthy eating plan, it’s even more effective. If you suffer from sleep apnea, try:

  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Commuting by bicycle if possible.
  • Drinking only plain water.
  • Getting 1 1/2-2 servings of fruit and 2-2 1/2 servings of vegetables a day.
  • Preparing more food at home.
  • Consuming more lean protein sources, like chicken breast or fish.

As with any lifestyle change, consult your doctor to find the best diet and exercise program for you.

How else is sleep apnea treated?

While no other treatment has the long-term benefits of weight loss, there are other ways to temporarily reduce apnea events and alleviate symptoms. Using a special breathing machine called a Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) device helps to keep airways open by maintaining a constant source of air pressure. Some patients find a bit of relief by sleeping in a semi-upright position by using devices like wedge pillows or bed risers. Sleep apnea can create problems falling or staying asleep, but it’s important not to turn to sleep remedies. While these will make you sleepier, they also cause muscles to relax more. So, even though you may have an easier time staying asleep, you can also make it harder for your body to get enough air.

Sleep apnea plagues an estimated 22 million Americans, and about 80% of them may go undiagnosed. If you’re suffering from any of the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, don’t wait — schedule a sleep study to find out if getting treated can improve your quality of life. If you are overweight or obese, ask your doctor how losing weight might be able to help you.