Sleep apnea is a common disorder characterized by disrupted breathing during sleep.
Obstructive apnea is the most common form, where a blockage disrupts breathing in the upper airway. Individuals with severe obstructive sleep apnea can stop breathing up to 30 times in a single night.
As the research into sleep apnea grows, a strong link has emerged to carrying excess body weight. Excess weight can cause sleep apnea, worsen its symptoms, and increase its many negative health effects.
Since a lack of sleep is also linked to weight gain, having sleep apnea, and maintaining a healthy body weight, get locked into a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.
The good news is that many studies are showing that weight loss can improve sleep apnea, if not completely cure it. So, it’s worth the effort if you are struggling with weight loss and sleep apnea.
However, before you start a new fad diet, it’s important to understand the complex relationship between the two conditions.
How Being Overweight Causes Sleep Apnea
The most common health condition linked to the development of sleep apnea is excess weight or obesity. When a person gains weight, they gain it everywhere in their body, including the neck.
This creates excess fat deposits called pharyngeal fat that can block the upper airway in a relaxed state or when a person is asleep. It’s the same physiological process as snoring, where the airway is narrowed and the air being squeezed through a partially blocked airway makes loud noises.
In the case of sleep apnea, the airway becomes completely blocked for short periods of time.
The other factor involved is an increase in abdominal girth, which compresses the chest wall and decreases overall lung capacity. When lung capacity decreases, there is a lower airflow volume, and the upper airway is more likely to collapse.
The correlation between body mass index (BMI) and sleep apnea is direct. As BMI increases, so does the risk of developing sleep apnea. A 10% increase in BMI results in a six-fold increase in sleep apnea risk.
While there are other causes for sleep apnea, like enlarged tonsils, lung diseases, and endocrine disorders, weight is the one cause that can be managed.
Does Sleep Apnea Cause Weight Gain?
Unfortunately, the relationship between weight and obstructive sleep apnea is reciprocal. Sleep deprivation is strongly associated with decreased levels of leptin and increased ghrelin.
These are the hormones that suppress and stimulate appetite. When these levels are altered, it results in intense cravings for calorie-rich food and leads to overeating because the brain “thinks” that the body needs food. What’s really happening is that the brain is receiving the wrong message and weight gain is the result.
People with sleep apnea gain about 16 pounds more per year than their age and gender-matched peers. This is thought to be due to the effects of chronic fatigue and sleep deprivation. Maintaining a healthy body weight requires energy, something that sleeps apnea sufferers simply do not have.
Can Losing Weight Cure Sleep Apnea?
As with many other diseases, the treatment of sleep apnea starts with behavioral and lifestyle modification. Most of the time, this will help with working towards a healthy body weight.
Since weight loss results in decreased fat deposits in the neck, it will allow for less restricted airflow. A decrease in abdominal fat will increase lung capacity and improve the integrity of the airway, making it less likely to collapse during sleep.
Weight loss can strongly reduce many symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, like daytime fatigue, irritability, and other neurologic dysfunctions. Cardiovascular health, blood pressure, diabetes risk, and quality of life are all markedly improved.
A weight loss of 10-15% reduces the severity of sleep apnea symptoms by 50%.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely cure sleep apnea, and many patients will still need to continue with other therapies.
Does The Method of Weight Loss Matter for Sleep Apnea?
When embarking on a lifestyle change, many sleep apnea patients want to know what method is best for weight loss. With so many options to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start.
Fad diets are never a good idea for long-term weight loss.
The best methods include dietary changes, increases in physical activities, medication, and weight-loss surgeries.
A first-line treatment often prescribed for obese patients is changing diet and exercise routines. Surgical or pharmacological intervention is then considered for patients who need to lose a considerable amount of weight or who aren’t successful in achieving adequate weight loss through behavior modification.
Even just exercising alone has been shown to improve sleep apnea symptoms, even without considerable weight loss.
Does Treating Sleep Apnea Help You Lose Weight?
Effective management of sleep apnea is key to successful weight loss. Because sleep apnea and weight are so intimately connected, it is difficult to manage one without managing the other. Therefore, you need to lose weight to manage sleep apnea, but you also need to manage sleep apnea to lose weight.
In a comparison study of sleep apnea patients on and off CPAP treatment, ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone, was significantly lower in people of the same body mass who used CPAP for at least two days. What this suggests is that CPAP treatment returns the body’s normal hormone levels, making it possible to lose weight in a healthy manner.
There is some evidence that long-term CPAP use may cause weight gain, but the reason behind this isn’t clear. Since sleep apnea and weight have a very complex relationship, it’s safe to say that overweight or obese sleep apnea sufferers should not rely on CPAP treatment alone as a method of weight control.
It’s necessary to intervene through other methods.
If you’re stuck in a struggle with weight gain and sleep apnea, early intervention is critical to preventing long-term health effects and regaining your quality of life. With proper treatment, sleep apnea has an excellent long-term prognosis.
If you’re overweight as well, embarking on lifestyle changes for weight control can only have a positive impact on your symptoms.