Is Sleep Apnea Reversible With Weight Loss?

Millions of people all over the world suffer from sleep apnea. Although there isn’t a single cause behind the development of this condition, excess weight and obesity are both risk factors and elements that can worsen the disease.

In today’s blog post, we will examine the link between sleep apnea and excess body weight, and we will look at weight loss as a potential way to improve the symptoms or even reverse this sleep disorder.

How is excess weight related to obstructive sleep apnea?

Medical experts have known for a while that obstructive sleep apnea (often abbreviated as OSA) is linked to excess body weight. To add some context, we need to understand what happens during an OSA episode. 

Essentially, the person stops breathing because the throat muscles collapse and cause a physical obstruction to normal air flow into the lungs. Breathing interruptions and lack of oxygen trigger a “panic mode” in the nervous system, which is resolved with a sudden awakening, gasping, choking, or snorting.

From this we can see that OSA is actually a physical dysfunction that involves the neck and upper airways. This is where we can start to establish a connection between the sleep disorder and excess weight. 

Researchers have noticed that people with a large neck circumference have higher incidences of sleep apnea than the general population. What exactly qualifies as a large neck circumference? Approximately 17 inches for males and 16 inches for women. 

Neck circumference matters in OSA patients because this is one of the main areas where fat and excess body mass accumulates when a person gains weight. After years of research, physicians now consider neck circumference as one of the most significant predictors of severe OSA.

For example, studies have found that OSA affects 40% of obese individuals, and conversely, that 70% of people with severe OSA are obese.

Another study, this time carried out in Turkey, also discovered a link between waist circumference, body mass, index, and the severity of OSA symptoms.

Generally speaking, we can say that the higher body weight is, the more soft tissue and fat are found in the upper airways, which means there is a higher likelihood of those soft tissues collapsing and blocking the normal flow of oxygen. Moreover, excess weight, in particular when it falls into the category of obesity, has been found to impair lung function, which could trigger OSA or worsen existing symptoms.

Does weight loss help improve sleep apnea symptoms?

With these studies and figures in mind, we could be led to think that losing weight would help improve OSA symptoms, as well as the condition’s severity – and research confirms that this is the case. 

In 2008, a study had patients with mild OSA go on a low-calorie diet, following lifestyle advice. This not only resulted in a lower body mass index, but participants also reported fewer apnea events. More importantly, researchers found that losing weight also eliminated OSA symptoms, effectively reversing the condition in 75% of participants.

In people with severe OSA, weight loss didn’t cure sleep disorder, but it did reduce the number of apnea events experienced every hour. This helped improve overall sleep quality, which is a top priority for anyone who suffers from OSA. 

Weight loss and OSA treatment

If you decide to change your diet and lifestyle in order to lose weight and improve OSA symptoms, there are a few things you need to know.

First of all, unless your condition is very mild, additional treatment will be needed. This often means following CPAP therapy, which so far is the only treatment option that relieves severe symptoms as long as it’s used as prescribed and on a nightly basis.

Secondly, CPAP air pressure settings are personalised based on your weight at the time you were diagnosed. Gaining or losing weight could render the settings ineffective, so you would need to have them assessed again by your sleep specialist. 

To recap, weight loss is useful for OSA patients, since it has been found to achieve two things: reduce the number of episodes per night, and improve overall sleep quality. And of course, losing excess weight will also have a beneficial effect on your health and energy levels.