Sleep apnea is a chronic, serious medical condition that causes your breathing to start and stop for short periods of time while you are sleeping.
While it’s primarily thought of as a disorder that disturbs your sleep cycle, it can also have a huge impact on your ability to maintain a healthy weight. Having sleep apnea leads to weight gain, which can make its symptoms worse.
How Sleep Apnea is Linked to Weight Gain
It’s well established that excessive body weight is a risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea. An unhealthy diet and lack of exercise contribute to obesity, which is also a risk factor for this condition.
So, we know that weight contributes to sleep apnea development, but does the association work in reverse?
Relationship Between Exercise and Sleep
Sleep apnea contributes to an overall lack of energy, which can, in turn, contribute to weight gain.
When you suffer from long-term sleep deprivation, it takes a toll on your body. Regardless of the number of hours you may have slept, your sleep quality is an important determinant of health. The continual sleep disruptions caused by sleep apnea lead to chronic fatigue, which further leads to a lack of exercise and eventually weight gain.
One of the last things you want to do when you’re tired all the time is exercise.
Regular exercise is important in maintaining healthy body weight, but individuals with sleep apnea experience constant fatigue. This has significant impacts on motivation levels to stay active.
Appetite Regulation and Hormonal Imbalances
There are certain hormonal imbalances associated with sleep apnea that can affect your appetite and cause changes to your weight.
When the hormones associated with hunger aren’t properly regulated, you feel more hungry than usual. The hormones responsible for signaling hunger, primarily ghrelin and leptin, tell you when to eat. If these are present in high quantities, you eat more often.
Leptin, in particular, tells you when your stomach is full, and too much of it signals you to eat more than you need.
Insulin levels can also be affected by sleep apnea. Without quality sleep, the cells in our body block insulin and refuse to allow glucose into our cells. The result is increased blood glucose; in short, sleep apnea can make you diabetic. Since insulin uptake by cells is responsible for regulating leptin levels, this process causes you to eat more.
Good quality sleep is important to maintain a healthy immune system and balance your appetite. When we are tired and lacking energy, we’re much more likely to reach for unhealthy, sugary snacks or caffeine to gain an energy boost.
While this is usually successful for temporary alertness, the extra calories can cause weight gain when these habits persist long term.
The rate at which your body burns calories is called metabolism. Fatigue leads to a lower daily calorie expenditure as your body tries to save all the energy it can to function.
Over time, this leads to a drop in your basal metabolic rate. Meaning the number of calories you burn at rest becomes lower. This makes you more likely to gain weight while eating the same number of calories because your body isn’t using them up.
Low Willpower and Increased Cravings
Sleep apnea creates a perfect storm of factors that lead to weight gain with an overall lack of energy, slower metabolism, and hormonal changes.
Another factor that contributes is the foods we crave when we’re tired. When we’re fatigued, we reach for energy-boosting snacks that are high in calories like those contained in sugar and carbohydrates.
Exhaustion takes a toll on our willpower. Even though we know we shouldn’t eat a chocolate bar for breakfast, for example, we’re a lot less likely to put effort into making a healthy meal when we’re tired.
Dangers of Sleep Apnea Associated with Weight Gain
Sleep apnea and weight gain co-exist in a spiral.
Most people gain weight everywhere in their body, including their neck, further narrowing airways during sleep. The narrower the airway, the worse the obstructive sleep apnea becomes.
Weight gain and sleep apnea are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Does Losing Weight Reduce Sleep Apnea Symptoms?
Sleep apnea and weight control can be a vicious cycle without proper treatment.
Since sleep apnea leads to weight gain, it’s best to treat sleep apnea first. If you can get your sleep apnea under control, you can take steps to lose weight, which will, in turn, improve your symptoms.
Losing even 10% of your excess weight can produce a 20% decrease in sleep apnea symptoms, so it is worth losing the weight.
Weight Loss with Sleep Apnea
We know that excess weight makes sleep apnea symptoms worse. The first step to breaking the cycle between both is to treat sleep apnea. There are several studies that link CPAP treatment to successful weight reduction.
The New England Journal of Medicine looked at two groups of patients with sleep apnea. One group was given CPAP treatment, while the other was given “fake” CPAP treatment. The study tracked weight and abdominal circumference over a period of three months.
There was a significant decrease in the BMI of CPAP users compared to non-users. Metabolic symptoms were also reduced in the group that was undergoing treatment, as well as decreases in average blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
Sleep experts agree that CPAP therapy is helpful for losing weight if sleep apnea is the biggest contributing factor to the weight gain. While only CPAP treatment has been studied with regards to its effect on weight, the results would most likely be the same with any effective sleep apnea treatment.
The key is to get sleep apnea symptoms controlled first before focusing on weight loss.