Sleep apnea is a common yet serious sleep breathing disorder in which a person stops breathing or has lowered blood oxygen levels repeatedly through the night. In addition to being associated with a slew of serious medical conditions, sleep apnea is often associated with weight gain and can negatively impact weight loss efforts.
An interesting question often arises, “Does weight gain lead to apnea, or does apnea lead to weight gain?” To answer this let’s explore specifically how apnea is related to weight and weight gain.
Even though a significant proportion of thin people struggle with apnea, the majority of apnea sufferers are overweight. Overweight apnea individuals are often instructed to lose weight which can result in the lessening of the apnea severity, or in some cases cease the condition.
During obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of sleep apnea, a person’s airway becomes obstructed when the jaw and tongue collapse back into the throat when a person reaches a restful, deeper sleep. As this happens less air means less oxygen in the blood and eventually lowered blood oxygen level reaches the brain. The brain then signals for the person to be pulled out of deep sleep which results in the jaw and tongue moving forward opening the airway enough to get more air and oxygen. Once the body relaxes enough, the person falls back asleep , the jaw and tongue move back obstructing the airway, and the cycle continues.
The vicious cycle of apnea leads to sleep deprivation. In many (but not all) apnea sufferers, these repeated awakenings and sleep deprivation can cause symptoms such as daytime sleepiness, mental fog, impotence and depression-like symptoms.
Although there are many contributing factors to developing sleep apnea such as hereditary anatomical features, age, and alcohol consumption, an individual’s weight is often one of the most likely contributing factors.
Overweight individuals are more likely to have excessive fatty tissues in the throat and airway passage. This in turn contributes to a higher chance of an airway obstruction when a patient’s jaw and tongue structure fall back and relax during sleep.
Let’s explore the flipside. How does apnea affect weight gain and weight loss efforts?
The sleep deprivation that occurs during apnea can lead to weight gain in a variety of ways.
1. During sleep deprivation, hormones that regulate metabolism are out of sync and make weight loss more difficult.
Sleep deprivation causes an imbalance in appetite-controlling hormones. Ghrelin is a hormone that tells you that you’re hungry which is released in higher amounts during sleep deprivation including apnea patients. On the flipside, leptin is the hormone that tells you that you’re full but is secreted in lesser amounts in apnea individuals.
Studies have also shown that sleep deprivation can create disruptions in cortisol and insulin levels, both associated with diabetes and increased weight.
This combination of hormone irregularities can lead to overeating and weight gain. Not getting apnea treatment can cause difficulty in weight loss efforts due to hormone secretion irregularities during sleep deprivation that affect metabolism.
2. Decrease in energy and increase in daytime sleepiness often lead a sedentary lifestyle promoting weight gain.
Untreated apnea causes a decrease in restful and adequate amount of sleep. When you lose sleep you’re tired- sleepiness and lethargy change your activity. No one is in the mood to exercise when they’re experiencing exhaustion. This change of exercise patterns leads to a lack of exercise that can lead to weight gain and impede loss weight efforts.
3. Daytime tiredness and lethargy leaves little energy and motivation to plan healthy eating.
For most, a healthy lifestyle that includes healthy meal choices and preparation doesn’t miraculously appear. I know that I personally eat most healthy when I plan for, shop for and prepare healthy meals. This does take time and energy that most people who are suffering from effects of untreated apnea don’t have.
People who are sleep deprived tend to have unhealthy eating habits because they are far more likely to grab fast food on the way home than have the energy to plan and cook. Poor sleep patterns contribute to unhealthy food cravings for quick energy foods often high in sugar and carbohydrates
4. Depression-like symptoms and depression treatment may lead to weight gain.
Sleep deprivation and untreated apnea can often cause depression-like symptoms. A person who is depressed often lacks motivation towards healthy lifestyle choices. Individuals with depression symptoms may also seek comfort from foods that are high in fat and sugar.
Individuals that exhibit depression symptoms may also be prescribed antidepressant medications. A potential side effect of some antidepressant medications may include weight gain. This response adds further complexity to the apnea-weight issue.
Treating sleep apnea is often a great place to start in breaking the vicious cycles between weight gain and sleep deprivation. Healthy sleep hygiene is also crucial in establishing adequate amounts of sleep early in treatment. For long-term success in breaking the apnea-weight cycle, a commitment to healthier lifestyle choices is critical.
So, can treating sleep apnea help you lose weight? The short answer is yes! However the key word is help.
Whether you choose CPAP therapy or oral appliance therapy (dental devices), both common 1st choice treatments in treating obstructive sleep apnea, healthier sleep patterns and a healthier lifestyle can be just around the corner.