Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep breathing disorder characterized by interrupted breathing, multiple times a night during sleep, due to obstruction of the airway. It has been scientifically established that being overweight or obese is a high risk factor to developing OSA. This has naturally led to studies that determined if weight loss can cure sleep apnea.
A Matter of Weight
Not all overweight or obese individuals have sleep apnea; and the opposite is also true – not all individuals with sleep apnea are overweight or obese. But being overweight or obese does increase the chances of one developing sleep apnea; likewise, having untreated sleep apnea can lead to weight gain.
Individuals with sleep apnea stop breathing while asleep, sometimes, hundreds of times throughout the night and usually lasts between 20 and 40 seconds, or even longer. A lot of times, the individual is unaware of these occurrences, or apneas (which literally means, “without breath”); even when their brain wakes them up multiple times to get them to start breathing again, they don’t remember waking up.
The muscles and soft tissues in the throat normally relax during sleep; apneas occur when the walls of soft tissue in the throat collapse sufficiently to block the airway. In most cases, excessive body fat actually increases the amount of soft tissues in the neck, which not only adds strain on the throat but also increases airway obstruction during sleep.
Individuals who have normal weight but have untreated sleep apnea also have a high risk of becoming overweight. Their chronic fatigue associated with constant sleeplessness can lead to overeating and slowed metabolism, the combination of which is the prerequisite to weight gain.
A Matter of Weight Loss
For people who are overweight or obese and have sleep apnea, experts recommend weight loss as one of the primary forms of treatment.
Compared to other treatment options, sustained weight-loss has both short-term and long-term benefits to overall health; additionally, it’s the most affordable. And achieving a healthy weight does not only have the potential to cure sleep apnea, but also improve, if not completely treat, other conditions that are linked to both sleep apnea and being overweight or obese; these include diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and other cardiovascular conditions.
A straightforward relationship between reduced weight and reduced sleep apnea symptoms has been established in a number of sleep disorder studies. More specifically, the greater the weight loss, the greater the improvement in symptoms. But experts advise against severe caloric restriction and rapid weight-loss strategies, as these have their own inherent health risks. Gradual weight loss within a suitable amount of time is the best way to go.
Studies have shown that a weight-loss of at least 10% of total body weight in overweight individuals can already provide a significant improvement in the condition. Obese and morbidly obese patients will need to lose a lot more, obviously, to reduce symptoms.
How Much Weight Loss Do You Need?
How much weight an individual needs to lose in order to have a significant impact on OSA symptoms and overall, long-term health will be determined by a variety of factors, including current weight, target weight, age, gender, and other health conditions that may pose limitations. Before starting any weight-loss strategy as a remedy for sleep apnea, always consult a health professional to discuss options, safety, and risks.
A combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise is still the best strategy for sustained weight-loss. Counting and cutting calories; reducing portion sizes; avoiding processed and fast food; eating more fruits and vegetables; joining a gym or yoga class; engaging in low-impact or high-intensity workout, depending on your current condition; and/or joining a structured weight-loss program are foolproof ways to lose weight safely and effectively.
Behavioral changes, especially those that are closely associated with eating habits and one’s relationship with food, should also be considered. Some people with weight issues are prone to stress-eating; others are habitual snackers; others, still, have food addictions. The first step is to recognize the problem behavior, and then find a healthy substitute. For example, instead of reaching for unhealthy food when feeling stressed, take a long walk to relieve the stress.
Weight loss to cure sleep apnea, particularly for individuals with other health conditions associated with their being overweight or obese, should be done in a controlled manner and with the recommendation and supervision of a healthcare professional.
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