If you’re struggling with sleep apnoea, it’s likely that you’re also struggling with your weight1,2. Seventy to eighty percent3,4 of people with sleep apnoea suffer from obesity. But which comes first: the weight or the apnoea? And will losing weight help you to lose your sleep apnoea?
A chicken-and-egg situation
There’s a clear relationship between excess weight and sleep apnoea, and that relationship can easily trigger a vicious cycle. Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)5 can occur in people of normal weight, but excess weight and obesity are known risk factors6,7,1. Excess weight, especially around the abdomen and neck, can trigger OSA because the extra tissue takes up space and puts more pressure on the airways8. If your neck circumference is more than 43 cm (for men) or 40 cm (for women) then it’s likely you will be affected by OSA.
The opposite is also true: sleep apnoea can trigger weight gain and make it more difficult to lose weight4. Untreated sleep apnoea results in a constant cycle of disrupted sleep and oxygen deprivation. This upsets the body’s normal hormonal balance4, causing metabolic changes that reduce your ability to process food effectively and leave you craving sweets and carbs during the day. Untreated sleep apnoea also leaves you tired, irritable and in a low mood, making self-discipline around food more challenging and comfort food even more appealing.
Lose the weight, lose the sleep apnoea?
Weight loss can be a powerful tool in the battle against sleep apnoea. The American College of Physicians (ACP) recommends that people affected by OSA should lose weight and use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) as initial therapy9. Researchers are finding that losing weight can reduce the severity of sleep apnoea or even cure it6. For example, one study found that when patients with mild OSA lost 10% of their body weight, the severity of their OSA could be reduced by more than 20%4.
But losing weight isn’t easy at the best of times, and it’s more difficult if untreated sleep apnoea is playing havoc with your hormones and your sleep patterns. Getting your sleep apnoea under control should reduce hormone fluctuations and give you more energy and motivation to pursue a weight-loss programme2. And once you start losing weight, you should start seeing positive effects on your breathing, your sleep and your general health1,4,10.
You might find new technologies11 help you to start your weight loss journey and keep on track. For example, the iHealth Lite wireless scale12 and the iHealth Wireless Body Analysis Scale13 both make it easy to track your weight, set achievable goals and (if you choose!) share progress with your friends, family and doctor. Wearable fitness trackers are a great motivator for increasing your activity levels too. Simple tools like the Omron Walking Style IV14 count steps and calories, while more advanced trackers also monitor heart rate, sleep and a host of other wellbeing indicators.
Sleep apnoea is a complex condition with many different factors at play. There are no guarantees that losing weight will help you to reduce or resolve your OSA, but there is real potential for benefit. And losing excess weight will almost certainly improve your general health. What’s more, studies indicate that the sleep apnoea benefits might last even if you later regain some of that weight2,16.
If you think you might be affected by OSA, start by asking your doctor for advice and testing. It could be the nudge your body needs enter a positive cycle of losing weight, sleeping better, and enjoying a healthier, happier life.
1. Kuna, S.T. et al. Long-Term Effect of Weight Loss on Obstructive Sleep Apnea Severity in Obese Patients with Type 2 Diabetes. Sleep, 2013.
2. Sampol, X. et al. Long-term efficacy of dietary weight loss in sleep apnoea/hypopnoea syndrome. European Respiratory Journal, 1998
4. Romero-Corral, A. et al. Interactions Between Obesity and Obstructive Sleep Apnea Implications for Treatment. Chest, 2010.
16. Tuomilehto, H. et al. Sustained improvement in mild obstructive sleep apnea after a diet- and physical activity-based lifestyle intervention: post-interventional follow-up. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010