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The Link Between Weight and Sleep Apnea

One of the most common sleep disorders is sleep apnea, a condition characterized by breathing interruptions during sleep. And, the most common type of this sleep disorder is called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) caused by narrow or blocked upper airway.

Due to the prevalence of sleep apnea, experts have tried to find links to other conditions to treat this sleep disorder successfully. One significant link they found is between weight and sleep apnea. Hence, if you suffer from sleep apnea or have excess body weight, you’d better understand the connection between the two conditions.

How Can Excess Weight Cause Sleep Apnea?

According to statistics, most OSA patients are either overweight or obese. To be more precise, 60-90% of adult patients with OSA have excess weight. Namely, the fat deposits accumulated in a person’s neck, medically called as pharyngeal fat, can block the upper airway during sleep. This is also the reason for snoring being the most frequently experienced sleep apnea symptom. 

Furthermore, the excess fat around a person’s stomach and waist adds pressure to the chest wall and decreases lung volume which as a result diminishes airflow and increasing the likelihood of upper airway collapse during sleep. But, it’s not only the pharyngeal fat or increased abdominal girth that can cause sleep apnea. In fact, a BMI (body mass index) increased by only 10% is linked to a six-fold increase in OSA risk.

How Can Sleep Apnea Cause Weight Gain?

Even though it was long thought that excess weight increases the risk of OSA, experts have found evidence that the relationship is actually reciprocal. 

The reason behind this connection is the fact that sleep apnea leads to sleep deprivation which is linked to reduced leptin (a hormone that suppresses appetite) and increased ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates appetite). Eventually, the hormonal changes caused by lack of sleep lead to increased calorie-dense food cravings.

In addition, weight gain issues are more common in people who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea when compared to people who don’t have this sleep disorder but have the same BMI and health status as the OSA patients. Precisely speaking, OSA patients gain more weight, about 16 pounds, a year compared with BMI-matched people without the sleep disorder.

Is Losing Weight Effective to Treat Sleep Apnea?

As with many conditions and diseases, treating sleep apnea requires some lifestyle and behavioral changes and adjustments. In general, OSA patients that are overweight should definitely try to lose that excess weight in order to reduce the fat deposits around the neck and stomach. Doing so, the airway will be less likely to collapse during sleep. It will also decrease other OSA-related symptoms like daytime sleepiness, irritability, snoring, etc. 

The truth is, even a 10-15% weight loss in moderately obese people can lead to a reduction of the OSA severity by 50%. However, you have to understand that weight loss can only help you relieve OSA symptoms and provide improvements in OSA, not cure it completely. Therefore, you still have to consult your doctor to get the therapy for treating OSA. 

The bottom line, the connection between weight and sleep apnea is significant. Thus, if you want to treat OSA successfully, you also have to address the weight issue. So, talk to your doctor about which weight loss strategy will work best for your OSA severity. 

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