Sleep Apnea and Obesity

Sleep apnea is a serious sleeping disorder that may be associated with a number of other related health problems where breathing is delayed while a person is sleeping. This delay in breathing, if it happens often enough, may starve the body of oxygen and cause many unfavorable problems. And this condition is a growing problem in the United States, likely related to an increase in obesity.

Some of the symptoms and signs of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Choking or gasping upon waking sometimes
  • Insomnia (inability to stay asleep)
  • Inability to stay awake during activity (such as driving)
  • General fatigue
  • Waking up with a dry or sore throat
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Mood changes, irritability, forgetfulness, decreased libido
  • Observed pauses in breathing lasting more than 5 seconds

How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, then you’ll likely need to participate in a sleep study in order to get a firm diagnosis. A sleep study will usually be performed at a sleep clinic or sleep lab where you will stay overnight. Although the room will contain various machines for testing and diagnosis, it might feel a bit like a hotel room.

Tests performed during a Polysomnogram (sleep study) will be non-invasive and should be painless. You’ll be hooked up to machines that will monitor your heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, snoring, chest movements, leg movements, and eye movements. Once the sensors are attached to your face, scalp, chest, arms, legs, and one finger, you’ll go to sleep as usual and you’ll be monitored throughout the night.

If your doctor is suspicious that you may have sleep apnea, you might be included in a split test in which you will be monitored during the second half of the night while using a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine. This may allow for your physician to better plan out an effective treatment for you.

Does Obesity Cause Sleep Apnea?

Although not always the case, the most common cause of sleep apnea in adults today is obesity and excess weight. With 65% of adults in the United States carrying too much weight or qualifying as obese, the problem is a growing concern. And there is a direct correlation between the two conditions.

People whose sleep apnea is caused by too much weight have Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). This type of sleep apnea is caused by a physical blockage that keeps the airways from being able to open up as often as they should. In people who are overweight, this is caused by the soft tissues of the mouth and throat collapsing and obstructing the breathing passages. Some people find that the condition worsens if they sleep on their back, due to gravity allowing for the throat to be blocked.

People who are overweight or obese are at a much higher risk for sleep apnea. Other risk factors related to the condition are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Large neck circumference (circumference over 17 inches in men, 16 inches in women)
  • Severely receded chin
  • Male gender (men are twice as likely as women to have the condition)
  • Age (people in middle age or older are more at risk)
  • Smoking (smokers are 3 times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea)
  • Use of alcohol, sedatives, or other drugs
  • Narrowed breathing passages (swollen tonsils or adenoids, deviated septum, etc.)

Will Losing Weight Stop Sleep Apnea?

One of the difficult factors with sleep apnea is the vicious cycle related to weight gain. Not only does being overweight cause sleep apnea (particularly in people who are morbidly obese – that is with BMI of more than 40), but sleep apnea can also cause weight gain! So this is a double whammy that can make losing weight even more difficult for sleep apnea patients. The link between sleep deprivation and hunger hormones is unclear, but many studies have shown that people who are lacking sleep will have a much more difficult time losing weight.

The good news is that losing weight is possible and it can, in some cases, actually cure the condition of sleep apnea. Although it can be difficult, particularly if there are secondary conditions such as arthritis, losing weight is best done with a strong support system in place. Many people find that using other treatments for sleep apnea may help them to lose weight, causing them to eventually no longer need the other treatments.

Sleep apnea combined obesity comes with a myriad of other health risks, including diabetes, stroke, congestive heart failure, metabolic syndrome, liver scarring, and a host of other health problems. But many of these risks can be minimized through lifestyle changes that include eating healthier meals, exercising, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption.

If you need help with a weight loss regime, or are considering bariatric surgery for obesity, talk to your physician as soon as you can. It may not only stop you from snoring, but it could truly extend your life span by protecting you from many health complications.

What are Other Treatments for Sleep Apnea?

In addition to losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle, obstructive sleep apnea is a condition with options for treatment. While a few people may actually need surgery in order for sleep apnea to clear up, most treatment options for sleep apnea are non-invasive.

The most commonly recommended treatment for sleep apnea is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine forces air through a breathing mask into the nose, holding the breathing passages open while you are sleeping. Sleeping with these machines may be uncomfortable for some people, but products such as special pillows and mattresses are available to help keep the breathing mask in place.

One common way to minimize the number of breathing episodes during the night is to avoid sleeping on the back. Some people need special pillows to help them sleep on their sides or stomachs. Other people make use of adjustable mattresses to help them stay slightly more inclined when sleeping.


Sleep apnea is a condition that should be taken seriously. But many treatment options and products are available today to help you minimize the impact that sleep apnea has. So take care of yourself and take your life back!

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