Curing Sleep Apnea with Weight Loss Through Diet and Exercise

Excess weight is the leading risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common form of sleep apnea. Even a 10% increase in body weight can see your risk from sleep apnea increase six-fold.

Without treatment, sleep apnea increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. However, once diagnosed, sleep apnea can be treated and its debilitating symptoms reduced and potentially eliminated. 

While completely curing sleep apnea with weight loss is unlikely for those with moderate to severe sleep apnea, losing weight can improve the severity of the symptoms. Therefore, lifestyle modifications involving diet and exercise will form a part of a sleep apnea treatment plan.

How Excess Weight Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a narrowing of the airways as you sleep. This affects breathing and means the brain has to keep prompting the body to wake for air. In severe cases, this can happen over 30 times every hour, and the resulting sleep deprivation increases the risk of developing further serious health complications.

The airways narrow when the tissues in the neck relax and collapse as you sleep. When you are overweight, you can have excess fat deposits around the neck. You may also have a thicker tongue. Both issues can increase your risk of blocked airways when muscles relax during sleep.

A further risk factor from excess weight is that it can compress the chest wall. This may result in a reduction in lung volume, and this reduced capacity has the knock-on effect of reducing airflow. A diminished airflow further increases the likelihood of the airways collapsing while you sleep.

The statistics confirm this connection between excess weight and sleep apnea as up to 90% of adults with obstructive sleep apnea are also overweight. To compound matters, abnormal levels of appetite-controlling hormones resulting from sleep apnea could lead to weight gain through an increased craving for high calorie foods -- creating a vicious circle. 

Is Curing Sleep Apnea with Weight Loss Possible?

While eliminating symptoms might be possible for a small percentage of people, it is more likely that losing weight can help reduce symptoms. This is important, as any reduction in symptoms will help improve your all-important restorative sleep.

Studies suggest that a 5 to 10% reduction in body weight can improve the severity of sleep apnea symptoms. Therefore, lifestyle modifications that promote weight loss are a key part of treating sleep apnea. 

For someone who is moderately obese, a 10 to 15% weight loss could see the severity of obstructive sleep apnea cut in half, a significant result. This is because losing weight can reduce the level of excess tissue in the neck that collapses and blocks your airways as you sleep. Therefore, more air will reach the lungs through clearer airways.

Losing Weight Through Diet and Exercise

Losing weight is best approached with a longer-term aim. Losing weight over a longer period helps develop healthy habits that you are more likely to continue once you have reached your initial weight loss aims. Six months is an acceptable period for a weight loss program, one which allows you to set more manageable targets.

Ultimately, you want to find a nutritious, balanced diet that prioritizes fruit and vegetables and avoids highly processed foods. You are seeking a balanced diet that you enjoy eating too, which is important for continued compliance.

However, a balanced diet alone is not sufficient to achieve weight loss. You will need to be aware of your calorie intake each day. For women, this should be between 1200 and 1500 calories a day, and for men, between 1500 and 1800 calories per day. Calorie counting becomes an important part of a weight loss plan.

Further tips include:

  • not skipping meals and keeping to three meals a day
  • drinking plenty of water throughout the day
  • avoiding sauces, dressings and condiments that are high in calories
  • looking to lose an achievable and healthy weight loss of 1 or 2 lbs per week

A healthy, nutritious diet can make you feel better and more energetic. When you feel more energetic, you are more likely to feel like exercising. Exercising alongside a healthy diet are primary lifestyle modifications your health provider is likely to recommend for losing weight if weight is a factor in your sleep apnea diagnosis.

It is important to work with your health provider to develop an exercise routine that is suitable for you and considers your fitness levels and any known health conditions, including sleep apnea. Even without a significant loss of weight, exercise can still contribute toward a moderate reduction in sleep apnea symptoms.

CPAP and Weight Loss in Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea

While weight loss may eliminate sleep apnea symptoms for a small percentage of people, many will use lifestyle modifications aimed at weight loss as one element of a treatment plan.

CPAP is a primary treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. Standing for continuous positive airway pressure, CPAP uses a device to supply pressurized air through a mask worn while you sleep. The air keeps your airways open and prevents the breathing pauses associated with sleep apnea.

CPAP is effective at reducing sleep apnea symptoms and may work best in tandem with weight loss when obesity is a contributing risk factor for the sleep disorder. However, even if the severity of your sleep apnea symptoms improves with weight loss it does not mean you should ditch CPAP. Consult your health provider, who may recommend a new sleep test.

Final Thoughts

Being overweight can further increase the risk of the serious health conditions linked to sleep apnea. While curing sleep apnea with weight loss is unlikely for most, losing weight through more exercise and an improved diet can reduce the severity of the disorder’s symptoms. This in turn results in improved sleep that will see you feeling less fatigued during the day.