SLEEP APNEA CAN AFFECT PEOPLE OF ALL AGES AND SIZES, but it’s a well-established fact that being overweight is one of the major contributors. Having excess fat can cause a person’s airways to collapse more readily at night, and extra weight around the chest and abdomen makes it harder to fill the lungs and can lead to shallow breaths.
With obesity on the rise in the U.S., the connection between body weight and sleep apnea is an important one. Obesity rates have doubled since the 1980’s, with over one third of Americans currently having a body mass index over 30 (normal BMI is 18.5-24.9).
The story of weight and sleep apnea is complicated, though, because while being overweight can lead to sleep apnea, the sleep disorder itself can cause weight gain. If your nighttime slumber is disrupted over and over by the brief wakings of sleep apnea, your body won’t get the long, restorative cycles of rest it needs. This sleep loss then changes hormones that affect your metabolism and can even make you gravitate towards high calorie foods. When you’re tired, it’s also harder to find the motivation and discipline you need to exercise and eat well. In other words, sleep apnea and weight have a puzzling chicken-and-egg relationship.
The good news is that even though it can be an uphill battle, losing weight does work for many patients. For example, in a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers divided people with sleep apnea into two groups, enrolling one in a weight loss program and the other receiving no diet or exercise guidance. After one year, the weight loss group had lost an average of 24 pounds and was three times as likely to be in remission from their apnea symptoms.
That’s why sleep doctors encourage patients to be conscious of their overall health, weight loss is one of the most powerful tools we have for treating sleep apnea.