Many Americans are living with obstructive sleep apnea - and many of them are undiagnosed. Sleep apnea is a sleep breathing condition that occurs when your airway becomes blocked during sleep. When the airway becomes obstructed, you wake up frequently throughout the night, which prevents you from getting the sleep you need.
Obstructive sleep apnea can also contribute to weight gain and obesity. Research has shown that approximately 40 percent of the people living with obesity also have obstructive sleep apnea, and 70 percent of people with obstructive sleep apnea are obese.
But how and why are the two related?
What Is Sleep Apnea?
There are two main types of the sleep breathing disorder. The first is central sleep apnea, which is less common and is caused by faulty signals from the brain that tell the body to stop breathing during sleep. Central sleep apnea can develop due to illness, use of opioids, trauma or other neurological factors. Essentially, the brain "forgets" to tell the body to breathe during sleep.
The second (and more common) type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway becomes partially blocked, usually by the tongue or by the soft tissues of the throat collapsing into the airway. When one of these blockages occurs, your breathing stops for periods spanning from 10 seconds to more than a minute during sleep. These breathing interruptions can happen a dozen times to hundreds of times a night, reducing your oxygen levels and causing sleep deprivation.
As you can imagine, when the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly, it means low blood oxygen levels in addition to not getting great sleep. Low blood oxygen levels can cause serious health problems.
The most common obstructive sleep apnea symptoms include:
- Snoring or gasping for breath
- Rapid breathing (hypopnea)
- Restless sleep
- Frequent nighttime urination
- Headaches or migraines
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
Individuals can have both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea simultaneously, a situation known as mixed or complex sleep apnea. Researchers do not definitively know what causes both conditions to occur, as symptoms vary between patients.
Does Gaining Weight Affect Sleep Apnea?
While not everyone who is obese or overweight develops sleep apnea, being overweight and gaining weight can increase your risk of developing the sleep breathing disorder.
One reason for this is that when you have excess body weight or a high body mass index (BMI), you most likely have excess weight on your neck or have a large neck circumference, which can cause your upper airway to collapse. As a result, individuals with a lot of excess fat or tissue on the neck and chest have a greater risk of developing OSA.
Some research has shown that adding just 10 percent of your weight (for example, 20 pounds if you are 200 pounds) can up your risk of developing the sleep breathing disorder by six times!
Does Sleep Apnea Cause Weight Gain?
So, does having sleep apnea cause you to gain weight? For many, the answer is yes! The relationship between sleep apnea and weight gain is a vicious cycle - gaining weight can contribute to sleep apnea development, and having sleep apnea can cause you to gain weight.
There are a few reasons disordered breathing can contribute to a higher risk of weight gain:
Low Energy and Chronic Fatigue
Just one night of poor sleep can make you feel bad the next day, so imagine how you feel when you don't get restful sleep for months or years. Not getting restful sleep can cause you to feel chronically tired and zap your energy levels.
When you don't have energy, you prioritize tasks by what is critical versus what is extra. For example, you may put off grocery shopping and meal prep and hit the drive-through instead. And, when you don't have the energy to cook, you probably do not have the energy to hit the gym, either, so you tend to sit longer and live a more sedentary lifestyle.
All these factors can make you gain weight.
Did you know that when you're tired and become less active, your metabolism slows down? When you sit more, you also burn fewer calories, which means you're more likely to gain weight even if you aren't eating more. This contributes to weight gain.
Changes in Hormones
When you don't get enough sleep because your upper airway is blocked, not only do you experience sleep deprivation, but you also never reach the level of sleep in which your hormones are regulated. The result is a hormonal imbalance and weight gain. This also makes losing weight nearly impossible.
In particular, when you do not get enough sleep, your body's production of the hormone leptin is interrupted. Leptin is the hormone that tells you your stomach is full after you eat. Also, production of ghrelin, the hormone that causes you to want to eat more, increases. So, high levels of ghrelin mean you increase your eating and gain weight.
One More Thing About Sleep Apnea and Weight Gain
These three factors (lack of energy, slow metabolism and changes in your hormones) combine to make you want simple carbs and foods high in sugar. If you're reaching for unhealthy, sugary foods, you will also gain weight, causing other health problems such as high blood pressure.
Can Losing Weight Improve OSA Symptoms?
Yes! Losing weight and other lifestyle changes such as improved nutrition and making physical activity a part of your routine can help reduce your OSA symptoms.
That being said, if you don't get proper treatment for your obstructive sleep apnea, the soft tissues of your upper airway could still collapse during sleep. That means you won't get the rest you need, and you will have difficulty maintaining a healthy body weight. This will then make your sleep apnea worse, which will cause you to gain more weight.
On the plus side, if you do get treatment for your obstructive sleep apnea, you can lose excess weight. One study has shown that losing just 10 percent of your body weight can yield dramatic improvement and significantly reduce your OSA symptoms.
Other Consequences of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea does not just cause you to gain weight or make losing weight difficult; it can mean an increased risk of developing several other conditions, including:
- Acid reflux
- Mental confusion and memory loss
- A weakened immune system
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease, heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases such as atrial fibrillation (suddenly rapid heartbeat)
- Dementia and Alzheimer's disease
- Low libido
- Liver problems
- Type 2 diabetes
Getting Help for Your Sleep Apnea
So, while sleep apnea can cause weight gain, make losing weight difficult and increase risk factors for other chronic illnesses, all hope is not lost. There's help through treatment. Conventional treatment for sleep apnea is the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which is not always the most comfortable way to treat sleep apnea.
Because many individuals report discomfort with the CPAP machine, Legends Dental offers an alternative: appliance therapy. Learn more about appliance therapy and how it can help treat your sleep apnea, potentially improve your body weight and benefit your overall health.
Contact Legends Dental today at 254-799-9540 for more information or to schedule a sleep apnea consultation.