What is the Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Obesity?

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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2019
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The connection between sleep apnea and obesity is that obesity is the primary cause for 90-95% of sleep apnea cases. Obstructive sleep apnea, the primary type, is due to fat placing excessive pressure on the airway. The main symptom is excessive snoring. A primary care physician can usually diagnose sleep apnea through a physical examination, though a sleep study may be necessary to determine the exact effects upon the body. A variety of treatments exist, many centered on losing weight.

There are two forms of sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is responsible for about 10% of cases. In this brain disorder, the brain can no longer control the muscles responsible for respiration. Breathing stops from 10 to 30 seconds until the body forces itself to wake up and breathe. Despite having no link to obesity, central sleep apnea creates the same feeling of tiredness during the day and cognitive impairment as obstructive sleep apnea.


Obstructive sleep apnea is the link between sleep apnea and obesity. Though a patient never stops breathing during the course of sleep, a partially blocked airway reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the brain and body. The telltale symptom, loud snoring, is usually first noticed by a spouse or partner in the same bed. Louder snoring indicates that the body is struggling harder to breathe. Though the risk of dying in one's sleep in much less with obstructive sleep apnea than central sleep apnea, both are degenerative conditions.

The combination of sleep apnea and obesity has a detrimental effect on bodily health more serious than either condition on its own. For example, both sleep apnea and obesity cause high blood pressure. If sleep apnea and obesity are present at the same time, a feedback loop occurs where blood pressure rises very quickly. As high blood pressure can lead to a number of other conditions, it is not safe to leave obstructive sleep apnea untreated.

Visiting one's primary care physician is the first step toward reducing occurrences of sleep apnea. Blood work and a physical will rule out other causes of sleep apnea such as hypothyroidism or diabetes. If these conditions are absent, a physician will diagnose sleep apnea. Before recommending treatment, though, some physicians may recommend that a patient undergo a sleep study. During a sleep study, a patient is monitored asleep to judge the nature and severity of the sleep apnea.

After diagnosis, most treatment paths begin with a weight loss program. Reducing weight through diet and exercise lessens pressure on the airway, reducing the severity of the sleep apnea. Though results are as gradual as the rate of weight loss, many patients feel more alert and well-rested after sleep. Where weight loss has little effect on sleep apnea, surgery to open up the airway will allow easier breathing during sleep.



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