Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which your upper airway collapses, and you stop breathing for short periods of time during sleep, causing you to wake up so you can take a breath.

It’s usually caused when the muscles that support the soft tissues in your throat, nose, and mouth relax, leading to a narrowing of your airways.

Having overweight or obesity can further restrict airways due to a buildup of fat deposits, worsening the condition. The condition can also cause you to gain weight because of the negative effects of sleep apnea on your day-to-day functioning and hormone levels.

It may seem like a catch-22: The less you sleep due to sleep apnea, the more likely you are to gain weight, and the more excess weight you carry, the worse your sleep apnea can be.

But there’s plenty you can do to treat your sleep apnea, breathe and sleep better, and manage a healthy weight.

For starters, lack of sleep can cause you to be hungrier for longer, and to eat more calories than your body needs, especially from calorie- and carb-dense foods. That can lead to weight gain.

Fatigue is another problem caused by poor sleep quality. If you don’t get enough sleep, you probably won’t have as much energy to move around and exercise. If you have lower mobility, that can also keep you from exercising as much as you’d like.

Lack of sleep affects everybody but can particularly impact adolescents’ tendency to gain weight. Adolescence is a crucial time for brain growth and development, and young adults need plenty of good quality sleep to support it.

Not getting enough sleep can adversely affect the growth of the brain region called the hypothalamus, which regulates appetite and energy expenditure.

In a 2019 study on adolescents with obesity, the faster subjects gained weight, the more likely they were to develop severe obstructive sleep apnea and experience reduced quality and duration of sleep.

Sleep and hormone balance

Your appetite can also become dysregulated because of sleep-related changes to your hormone levels, especially the hormones leptin and ghrelin.

Leptin is the hormone that allows you to feel full when you’ve eaten enough. Those with obesity already have high levels of leptin in their body. It’s been found that people with sleep apnea can also have up to 50 percent more of this hormone compared to those who don’t have sleep apnea.

That’s a problem because if your body makes too much leptin for too long, it can become resistant to it, which prevents you from feeling satisfied after eating.

At the same time, your ghrelin levels may be elevated due to obesity or lack of sleep. This hormone makes you feel hungry, also leading to excessive calorie intake.

Because you’re often very hungry and rarely feel full after eating, you may eat too much and store the excess calories as fat.

Your risk for sleep apnea increases as you get older but occurs across all ages and populations. The countries with the highest number of affected individuals are:

  • China
  • United States
  • Brazil
  • India

A study from 2008 on the relationship between weight gain and sleep apnea found that fifty-eight percent of moderate to severe sleep apnea occurs in those who are overweight or obese.

A 2017 study found that change in body weight was directly proportional to sleep-disordered breathing — the less overweight subjects were experiencing, the less likely they were to have sleep apnea or severe sleep apnea.

Weight loss can reduce the severity of sleep apnea but is unlikely to completely cure the condition. But losing weight if you have overweight or obesity is one of the most effective treatments for your sleep apnea.

Both apnea and obesity can put you at an elevated risk of several serious conditions, including:

Get involved in clinical trails

You can search for ongoing clinical trials involving sleep apnea at clinicaltrials.gov.

Many are open for participation and include a wide variety of sleep apnea study areas, including a new neuromodulation therapy device; the role of the gut biome; and apnea prevalence in specific demographic populations.

Make sure to always talk with your doctor before pursuing any change to your treatment.

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Treating sleep apnea may also help you lose weight. So can lifestyle changes like a balanced diet, more exercise, and some medications.

Treating your apnea will allow you to sleep better and longer. Sleep is a crucial ingredient in weight loss and maintenance.

Some research has shown that those who usually sleep less than 7 hours have metabolic improvements and greater weight loss when they’re able to sleep more than 7 hours.

Those who sleep less than 6 hours a night may also be more prone to eating more, closer to bedtime, increasing their overall caloric intake and leading to weight gain.

If you have sleep apnea and have overweight or obesity, The American Thoracic Society recommends losing as little as 5-10 percent of your body weight.

Talk with your healthcare team about the best approach for you to start managing your weight. While this may not alleviate your sleep apnea altogether, it can be a valuable part of managing your symptoms and improving your overall health.

Maintaining a moderate weight with sleep apnea

There are several ways to get to or maintain a moderate weight. Your doctor may recommend some lifestyle changes, in addition to your sleep apnea treatments, that include:

Having sleep apnea makes it hard to get enough continuous, high quality sleep. It also increases the chances of developing or worsening other conditions like hypertension, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to put on weight due to hormonal changes and extreme fatigue, which makes it difficult to be active.

Having overweight or obesity can also make sleep apnea symptoms worse, so both conditions can exacerbate each other.

You can reduce or eliminate sleep apnea by losing weight if you have overweight or obesity and, at the same time, reduce your risk of other serious, chronic illnesses.