Most research has shown that maintaining a moderate weight correlates with an improvement in sleep apnea. In fact, the link is so robust that many doctors recommend people with sleep apnea maintain a moderate weight.

The above information comes from a 2020 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Sleep apnea affects an estimated 22 million individuals in the United States. People with the condition periodically stop breathing while they are asleep.

The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when something obstructs the airways. Approximately 41% of obstructive sleep apnea cases in adults have links to excess weight. This may be because having too much soft tissue, such as tongue fat, in the airway can cause obstructions.

Read more to learn about how a person’s weight affects sleep apnea, how and when individuals should try to lose weight, and other treatment options.

A person with sleep apnea using a CPAP machine.Share on Pinterest
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Obstructive sleep apnea involves the partial or complete collapse of the airway, reducing oxygen levels and disrupting sleep.

It occurs due to two factors affecting the airway: insufficient space for airflow and low muscle tone.

People with obesity may experience one or both of these issues. They can have fatty deposits in the upper respiratory tract, narrowing the airway and making it harder to breathe. Having too little muscle activity can also reduce muscle tone.

Research has shown a direct link between weight and sleep apnea. An 11-year prospective cohort study from 2000 found that weight changes had links to changes in disordered sleep breathing.

Plenty of research has shown a link between weight and sleep apnea, but they have not discovered why. Research from 2019 investigated the exact mechanism underlying how weight loss alleviates sleep apnea.

It found that weight loss led to a reduction of fat in the abdomen and tongue. It also reduced the size of soft tissues in the upper airway.

However, the authors determined that decreased tongue fat was the primary contributor to reducing sleep apnea symptoms.

It is also important to note that the amount of weight loss may be proportional to the changes in their sleep apnea. Despite this, research strongly recommended weight loss for all people with sleep apnea, regardless of the severity or adherence to other treatments.

Aside from advising maintaining a moderate weight and other lifestyle changes, such as exercising and quitting smoking if applicable, a doctor may prescribe one of the following:

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)

The most effective sleep apnea treatment is the use of CPAP. A CPAP machine provides constant air pressure to keep the airway open.

Consistent nightly use can make symptoms disappear almost completely.

Oral appliances

These are custom-fit devices that a person can wear in their mouth during sleep to keep the upper airway open. They either reposition the jaw or hold the tongue forward.

Mouth and facial muscle therapy

Exercises that strengthen muscles of the mouth and face may help. Aside from strengthening all the muscles in the area, they improve the position of the tongue.

Surgical procedures

If other treatments do not work, a doctor may recommend one of several surgical procedures. These include an implant, the removal of adenoids or tonsils, and jaw surgery.

While doctors advise people with sleep apnea to maintain a moderate weight, it is important to do so carefully and safely. Losing weight can be difficult, and it is a long-term process involving small, sustainable lifestyle changes.

Get expert advice on diet

A person should contact a doctor before starting a new diet, especially if they have preexisting health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.

Programs that offer frequent appointments with a weight loss specialist and long-term follow-up visits have associations with better weight outcomes. If a person is considering maintaining a moderate weight, they can consult a doctor about programs and support groups.

Avoid crash or overly restrictive diets

Doctors do not recommend fad or crash diets that severely restrict calories, nor do they endorse skipping meals. Instead, they advise setting a modest goal of losing 1–2 pounds per week.

Choose a nutritious diet

Some trendy fad diets, such as the keto diet, promise quick results without hunger. However, scientists have not proven the efficacy and long-term safety of this approach.

It may be suitable to try a nutritious, balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein. Because it is not realistic to drastically change a person’s eating plan overnight, experts usually recommend making small, gradual changes. This may mean adding in an extra serving of vegetables every day, swapping white carbs for whole grains, and making an effort to eat sufficient protein.

Over time, these small changes can yield long lasting results.

Learn more about how to lose weight safely and sustainably.

Here are some common questions and answers regarding sleep apnea and weight loss.

Can maintaining a moderate weight cure my sleep apnea?

It depends. An ongoing clinical trial states that early weight loss may cure mild sleep apnea. Other research states that weight loss can often reduce the severity of a person’s sleep apnea, but it does not cure the condition by itself.

Is it harder for people with sleep apnea to lose weight?

According to an older study from 2014, sleep apnea may predispose a person to obesity. This is because reduced quality sleep has links to higher rates of weight gain.

How much should I lose?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. While losing 5–10% of body weight may help, a doctor may advise a different amount according to a person’s starting weight and co-occurring conditions.

Should I have weight loss surgery?

Research on people with severe obesity and sleep apnea indicated that weight loss surgery may improve apnea in some, but not all, cases. It is important to note that this type of surgery involves potentially dangerous complications. Because of the potential for serious effects, doctors do not advise this option for everyone. In some cases, they may advise a person to maintain a moderate weight before having surgery.

There is a clear link between sleep apnea and having excess weight. Most doctors advise people with sleep apnea to maintain a moderate weight, and in many cases, it can improve their symptoms.

However, before starting on a weight loss plan, it is best to first talk with a doctor.

Healthcare professionals can suggest a safe, healthy weight loss plan and provide personalized recommendations that consider an individual’s other health conditions. Along with weight loss, doctors may recommend the most effective treatment, which involves using CPAP.