If you have overweight or obesity, losing 5–10% of your body weight may help reduce or resolve sleep apnea symptoms.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common condition that can cause problems with your sleep. Apnea can make you stop breathing for seconds or minutes because the soft tissues along your airways collapse and block your airflow. It can lead you to get less quality sleep and increase your risk of serious health problems like heart attack and stroke.

But some measures, such as losing weight if you have overweight or obesity, can help your sleep apnea. Keep reading to learn more about the link between weight management and sleep apnea.

While you can’t change some risk factors for sleep apnea, like genetics, sex, or postmenopause, you may be able to address others, such as your body weight.

Excess weight is the biggest risk factor of sleep apnea development and severity. If you have overweight or obesity, losing just 5–10% of your body weight may be enough to resolve or improve the condition.

Tongue fat and sleep apnea

Tongue fat may increase sleep apnea symptoms. A thicker tongue is more likely to block your airways while you sleep. People with obesity who lose weight in this area may find that their symptoms improve.

A small 2019 study involving 67 people with obesity found that losing weight reduced the amount of fat in their tongues. This localized weight loss created a reduction in their apnea symptoms. The researchers concluded that new treatments that help specifically with tongue fat may help people with obesity and sleep apnea.

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Studies show that losing weight can help with the severity of your sleep apnea. A 2021 literature review determined that lifestyle changes, including more exercise and a healthy diet, were vital in managing sleep apnea over time. Researchers even found that a small percentage of people in studies who lost weight got rid of their sleep apnea entirely.

However, losing weight doesn’t guarantee sleep apnea will go away. Still, weight loss can significantly improve the severity of your symptoms, depending on how much weight you need to lose.

For instance, a 2022 study including 180 people with overweight or obesity found that a 5% reduction in weight improved sleep apnea symptoms, but a 10% reduction reduced symptoms the most. However, study participants were predominantly male, so it’s unclear how that may have influenced the results.

If you have sleep apnea, a doctor may suggest using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP uses pressure to keep your airways open while you sleep so you don’t stop breathing periodically.

If you have overweight or obesity, losing weight may reduce or eliminate your sleep apnea symptoms. That said, until your sleep apnea resolves, you can manage it with a combination of weight loss and CPAP therapy. The two approaches work better together than alone.

Can CPAP machines make it difficult to lose weight?

The relationship between CPAP and body weight is complex. Some people might gain weight from using a CPAP machine.

A 2021 review of 39 studies involving 6,954 people found weight gain associated with CPAP use of fewer than 5 hours a night. It wasn’t clear whether this was because of CPAP therapy or because people had other comorbid conditions.

However, people who used a CPAP for longer than 5 hours a night didn’t seem to gain weight.

Interestingly, people with cardiovascular disease saw a decrease in their weight while using the CPAP.

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Several programs are available to help you lose weight. Some specific program characteristics, including significant lifestyle changes, can lead to success.

The methods that tend to work the best include:

If you change your food intake, aim for a nutritious diet of about 1,200–1,500 calories daily for females and 1,500–1,800 calories daily for males.

Choose the diet you will most likely enjoy and stick with. You lose weight by restricting your total number of daily calories, not because of the types of food you eat. However, it’s beneficial to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet for overall well-being.

Plan to follow a diet or lifestyle change for at least 6 months. Losing weight slowly makes you more likely to maintain your weight loss because you’ll have established healthy habits.

Other suggestions include:

  • Set a healthy, sustainable weight loss goal, usually 1–2 pounds weekly.
  • Aim for three meals a day, and don’t skip meals.
  • Track your calories carefully.
  • Prioritize whole foods like fruits and vegetables, and limit or avoid ultra-processed foods. They can be high in sugar and additives.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Skip or limit high calorie sauces and dressings.

If you have a lot of excess weight to lose and your attempts to lose weight are unsuccessful, even with your best efforts, a doctor may recommend weight loss medication or surgery.

Here are some answers to your questions about sleep apnea and weight loss.

What is the life expectancy of a person with sleep apnea?

People with sleep apnea have a shorter life expectancy than the larger population. That’s because untreated sleep apnea increases your risk of serious health complications like heart attack and stroke.

A 2020 study that followed 4,502 people with sleep apnea over 30 years found that people who used CPAP long term were almost six times more likely to still be alive at the end of the study compared to non-CPAP users. They were also almost twice as likely to have survived versus short-term CPAP users.

How do you fix sleep apnea without a CPAP?

CPAP is very effective for sleep apnea. However, there are alternative therapies, including weight loss, oral appliances, physical therapy, sleep positioning, and surgery.

What are the newest sleep apnea treatments?

CPAP is still the gold standard for sleep apnea, but you can try many other therapies. If you’re overweight or have obesity, weight loss may be the most effective.

Losing weight when you have sleep apnea can be an effective way to decrease or eliminate your symptoms. Experts recommend losing at least 5% of your body weight, but losing 10% may be even more effective.

Weight loss may also help you overcome your need for a CPAP machine. However, you should keep using your CPAP machine until a doctor repeats sleep testing to show that weight loss has helped you resolve your sleep apnea.