Will Treating Sleep Apnea Help Me Lose Weight?

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on December 18, 2019
Last updated on May 23, 2021

Are you experiencing problems getting a restful night? Numerous factors, like sleep apnea, can bring about that experience. Having a sleep disorder can also harm your weight loss efforts in different ways. Many studies have established the complexity of their relationship. Read on to know more about sleep apnea, how can it affect weight loss, and tips to prevent it. 

woman sleeping

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is characterized by pauses in breathing while sleeping. These pauses can last from seconds to minutes. It can be experienced more than 30 times in just one hour (1). Sleep apnea has two types, depending on what the primary causes are.

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common than expected. People who suffer from the disorder are often left undiagnosed. Unfortunately, obstructive sleep apnea can lead to a chain of negative effects on one’s health and societal function. Restless sleep, loud snoring, and sleepiness during the day are some of the most common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (2).

The second one is central sleep apnea characterized by recurrent apneas while sleeping and no respiratory effort. To give you a more definite picture, the airflow is interrupted for around 10 seconds due to lack of inspiratory effort. It is not as common as obstructive sleep apnea, but it is more prevalent for people suffering from heart failure, having neurological problems, or are taking high doses of opiates. Some of its symptoms are insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and sleep fragmentation. However, the severity of the symptoms is more intense for those with obstructive sleep apnea (3). 

How Is It Diagnosed?

If you are worried that you are experiencing the symptoms, getting yourself checked is important. A proactive approach to your health will get you on top of things. Being aware is the first step to resolving your medical issues. 

Patients who snore and suffer hypersomnolence, a condition where one still experiences sleepiness even after getting quality sleep, are not the only ones that require diagnostic testing. Even those with high-risk jobs should get themselves checked out. Truck drivers, machine operators, and pilots are some of them. Also, it is important to note that not everyone who has obstructive sleep apnea suffers from daytime sleepiness (4). One of the tests that can detect obstructive sleep apnea is polysomnography. 

Polysomnography has been traditionally used in numerous sleep apnea studies. It measures sleep variables like respiratory disturbance index (RDI), which is defined as the result of apneas, hypopneas, and abnormal respiratory events in every hour of sleep, and apnea-hypopnea index (AHI), which is defined as the sum of hypopneas and apneas in every hour of sleep. Apnea is the lack of airflow for more than or equal to 10 seconds, while hypopnea covers the reduced respiratory effort with more than or equal to 4% of oxygen desaturation (5).

What Are the Possible Risks Involved in Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea does more than make you snore at night and feel sleepy during the day. The condition can cause some serious health issues. Here are some of them:

1. Elevated Blood Pressure

Those who are suffering from increased blood pressure will find themselves more agitated with lack of sleep. Waking up in the middle of the night can be stressful, especially when you know you have a full day tomorrow. Stress can send the hormone systems into haywire resulting in amplified levels of blood pressure. Additionally, in your apnea episodes, the oxygen level of the blood decreases. This can also add to the worsening of the problem.

One study proved the relationship between sleep apnea and blood pressure control in black people. This particular population is known for the high prevalence of uncontrollable blood pressure and hypertension. In the study, participants that have moderate or severe obstructive sleep apnea had two times increased odds of having resistant hypertension (6). 

Some people who addressed their sleep apnea problems noticed significant improvements in their blood pressure.

2. Heart Problems

Heart problems and sleep apnea have common risk factors. People with sleep apnea are likely to suffer from heart attacks, strokes, or coronary artery disease because of low oxygen and frequent sleep interruptions. Other body mechanisms like sustained sympathetic activation and changes in pressure along the intrathoracic region can also be triggers. The same goes for abnormalities like increased inflammation and problems in coagulation. The link between the two is strengthened by evidence that shows how the treatment of sleep apnea reduces blood pressure, stops platelet activation, and improves left ventricular systolic function (7).

Sleep apnea can mess up the way your body takes in oxygen. This makes it harder for the brain to take control of the blood flow in the arteries to and from the brain

3. Diabetes Mellitus Type 2

About 80 percent of people with this condition suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. OSA can encourage the onset of diabetes because of lowered insulin sensitivity and activation of a pathway that releases inflammatory markers linked to the resistance of insulin (8).

Also, not getting adequate rest can cause your body to misuse insulin.

4. Acid Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux or GERD has a mutual relationship with sleep disturbance problems. People with sleep apnea can induce gastrointestinal problems. On the other hand, people with acid reflux can cause sleep issues or worsen it. It can lead to a vicious cycle, where one worsens the other and vice versa. This can complicate GERD and affect the quality of life of an individual (9). Heartburn, chronic cough, vomiting, or inability to keep the food down can isolate an individual in social settings.

5. Motor Vehicle Accidents

A study showed that people with sleep apnea is about 2.5 times more likely to be involved as a driver in a motor vehicular accident. Excessive hypersomnolence and taking sleeping pills are considered independent predictors in the study. The study also pointed out that sleep apnea patients undergoing CPAP therapy led to a 70% reduction of motor vehicle accidents incidents in drivers with sleep apnea (10).

Apart from these unwanted ways sleep apnea hurts your health, there is a direct relationship apnea is causing your inability to lose weight.

Weight Loss and Sleep Apnea

Why is it hard to lose weight when you have sleep apnea? Sleep apnea can cause a person to gain some weight due to a number of ways. Common theories include the following: 

Sleep apnea stimulates the release of ghrelin. This hormone triggers cravings for carbohydrates and sweets. If you are a chocoholic, then you must have a lot of ghrelin. Unfortunately, when your body is too exhausted from lack of sleep being one of the possible reasons, your body is not too equipped in converting your food into energy. The result is weight gain. 

One study investigated serum leptin and ghrelin levels of patients with obstructive sleep apnea while undertaking continuous positive airway treatment, more commonly known as CPAP. While ghrelin influences your sweet tooth and cravings, leptin is a hormone that can reduce appetite. In conclusion, the results showed that CPAP treatment has an influence on both hormones. Although, the mechanism of how it occurs remains to be unknown (11).

On the flip side, obesity may be a cause of sleep apnea. People who are overweight tend to have high amounts of fat in the neck. This makes it difficult to breathe at night. In that sense, excessive weight can indeed contribute to sleep apnea. With the number of diseases linked to obesity, it is no surprise it can weigh you down. Fatigue makes it hard to do any physical activities, so indirectly it can cause further weight gain.

Sleep loss does more than cause weight gain, it can also limit the loss of fat. There are numerous studies that support the idea of how sleep deprivation makes it difficult to lose weight. Some people sleep fewer hours than most. While for some this is by choice, sleep apnea sufferers have no option. As mentioned earlier, sleep apnea can lead to insulin resistance and high blood pressure. When it is treated, you get more control of your hormones. 

One study showed that dieters lose as much weight when they sleep fewer hours than normal. However, those dieters who sleep the ideal amount of time have lost more than 50% of fat in their total weight loss.  Those with limited sleep hours only lost one-fourth of fat in their total weight loss. Additionally, the second group felt the need to eat more (12). If the goal is to lose body fat and shed some pounds in the belly zone, it is not enough to just revamp your diet and go to the gym regularly, you must not skip sleep as well.

How to Deal with Sleep Apnea and Experience Weight Loss?

Sleep apnea can be addressed by small lifestyle changes. Not only will your sleep disturbances stop, but you will also start seeing some changes when you look at the scales.

1. Stop Smoking 

When you smoke, it can make your throat and upper airway inflamed. Additionally, it leads to fluid retention in these areas. Once you lay off the cigarettes, you will feel the difference of having less restricted airflow.

In one study, a group of non-smokers of both genders was given 11 mg transdermal nicotine for 12 hours and another group received a placebo. Those who received nicotine patches experienced decreased total sleep time and decreased sleep efficiency upon administration (13).

2. Exercise Regularly

If you are also targeting to lose weight, then starting a workout routine is like hitting two birds with one stone. By exercising regularly, the length and quality of your sleep will improve. Aerobic workouts and resistance training reduce sleep apnea symptoms while doing yoga strengthens the airway muscles.

Doing regular physical exercises, mainly aerobic ones, have resulted in milder obstructive sleep apnea severity, lessened sleepiness during the day, and improved sleep efficiency. (14)

3. Avoid Caffeine and Heavy Meals Before Bedtime

In one study, women with sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) consume more caffeine on a daily basis than women with SDB who do not drink coffee. (15)

4. Do Not Drink Alcohol, Sleeping Pills, and Sedatives

All of these can lead to throat muscle relaxation which can affect your breathing. According to one study, mean alcohol intake was about two units a week higher in people with sleep apnea. It claims that the reduction of alcohol can lead to preventive and therapeutic results to those with sleep apnea. (16)

With these healthy changes, you may see your sleep apnea improving in no time. Try coupling it with these sleep techniques for more results.

  • Be a side sleeper. Your tongue and soft tissues can obstruct your breathing if you sleep on your back.
  • Elevate your head. Use pillows to prop your head up with four to six inches of length.
  • Keep your jaw muscles tight. Chew some gum before bedtime to stiffen your jaw muscles and keep your mouth properly closed.

5. Medical Treatment Options

If none of these strategies work, consult a doctor to make your situation better. Most people with moderate to severe sleep apnea require intervention. These includes:

  • CPAP, the most common treatment, works by supplying constant air supply through a machine with a mask that covers both the nose and mouth
  • Expiratory positive airway pressure is placed over the nostrils to open the airway
  • Bi-level positive airway pressure is for those with weak breathing pattern
  • Adaptive servo-ventilation uses pressure to avoid experiencing breathing pauses as you sleep
  • Sleep apnea implant involves a pacemaker system insertion that provides muscle stimulation for better airway during sleep
  • Oral appliances promise larger airway by moving your lower jaw and tongue forward during sleep
  • Surgery is the last resort. It may include removal of some organs like the tonsils

Just to be clear, a CPAP machine or other forms of sleep apnea treatments should not be considered as part of your weight loss program.

Take-Home Message 

Sleep apnea can lead to weight gain or obesity can lead to sleep apnea. Either way, it is hard to lose weight if you are having trouble sleeping. It increases cravings and makes you feel lazy to do physical activities. Lifestyle changes, sleeping techniques, and medical interventions can help manage sleep apnea, resulting hopefully to weight loss, as well.


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