What is the Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Weight?

Lainie Petersen

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious medical condition in which a person experiences interrupted breathing while sleeping. Over time, the lack of oxygen and disruption in sleep caused by sleep apnea can have serious health consequences for sufferers. These consequences include high blood pressure, stroke, and heart problems, as well as many of the normal consequences of not getting sleep, such as impaired performance at work or school, bad driving, and depression. The medical community has long recognized a correlation between sleep apnea and weight, with some studies indicating that there may be a catch-22 relationship between obesity and sleep apnea. While obesity appears to be a possible cause of sleep apnea, there is also evidence that sleep disruption can contribute to weight gain.

A person experiences difficulty breathing when sleeping when they have sleep apnea.
A person experiences difficulty breathing when sleeping when they have sleep apnea.

There are two main types of sleep apnea. The first, central sleep apnea, is relatively rare and involves a neurological problem with regulating the respiratory system. The more common obstructive sleep apnea is typically caused by some form of throat obstruction. As the disruption of breathing happens while people are asleep, they may not be aware of the problem. It is not unusual for sleep apnea to be discovered by a spouse of partner, who may become aware of the condition by hearing the interruption of breath or attempts by the sufferer to clear his or her throat in the middle of the night. Other symptoms of sleep apnea include fatigue, regularly waking up with a dry, sore throat or a hoarse voice, and being aware of waking up periodically during the night.

Disruptive sleep caused by sleep apnea can lead to weight gain.
Disruptive sleep caused by sleep apnea can lead to weight gain.

The connection between sleep apnea and weight is somewhat complex. Having a large neck, for example, is connected with sleep apnea. It is believed that in obese people, folds of fat around the neck can contribute to the obstruction of air. For this reason, it may seem that the best treatment for sleep apnea caused by obesity is weight loss. Other research indicates that the connection between sleep apnea and weight is not one-directional. Sleep studies indicate that a lack of sleep can also contribute to obesity. If an obese patient is not getting enough sleep, his or her ability to lose weight is already compromised.

A weight loss diet and a sleeping mask could be used as joint treatment if sleep apnea and weight are connected.
A weight loss diet and a sleeping mask could be used as joint treatment if sleep apnea and weight are connected.

If someone suspects that he is suffering from sleep apnea, he should contact his doctor for assistance. Current treatments for sleep apnea include a breathing mask that is worn while sleeping, devices that are placed in the mouth to keep the airway open, and modifications in sleep position. If sleep apnea and weight are dual concerns for a patient, an approach that addresses both concerns at the same time, such as combining a weight-loss diet with a breathing mask, might be the soundest treatment protocol.

The links between sleep apnea and body weight are often complex.
The links between sleep apnea and body weight are often complex.
Sore throats are one of the more mild symptoms of sleep apnea.
Sore throats are one of the more mild symptoms of sleep apnea.

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