Total Shape is a reader-supported site. Purchases made through links may earn a commission. Learn more.

Does Losing Weight Help Sleep Apnea? (According to a Doctor)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: August 31, 2022

It's common knowledge that quality sleep goes hand in hand with weight loss, and the lack of sleep makes you prone to gaining weight.

But does that mean that individuals with sleep apnea can reverse their fate by simply losing weight?

I gathered a team at Total Shape and sought a sleep expert's counsel for in-depth research to establish whether sleep apnea can be reversed by losing weight.

Here’s what we found.

Quick Summary

  • While there’s no cure for sleep apnea, weight loss can reduce sleep apnea symptoms.
  • Sleep apnea indirectly causes gaining weight.
  • Up to 90% of people with Obstructive Hypoventilation Syndrome also have sleep apnea.

Can Losing Weight Cure Sleep Apnea?

A person on a weighing scale with the camera looking down on the numbers

No, losing weight can’t cure sleep apnoea, but it can significantly reduce its severity.

This is especially so with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a sleep disorder and the most common form of sleep apnoea [1].

With OSA, the problem starts with the fat deposits in the neck and tongue that restrict natural airflow during breathing.

Eliminating the fat deposits through weight loss can potentially treat the condition among other related health conditions [2].

More on that shortly.

Another way weight loss improves obstructive sleep apnea is by reducing abdominal fat to allow the lungs to expand when breathing [3].

According to Harvard Medical School, losing weight equivalent to 10-15% of your body weight reduces the severity of sleep apnea [4].

But before you even engage in any weight loss exercise program, it's wise to consult a doctor first.

How Does Excess Weight Affect It?

A person sleeping with his mouth open

Excess weight affects sleep apnea by causing the accumulation of fat in the neck, which blocks the upper airway, a factor that leads to the sudden stopping of breathing during sleep.

It also leads to the accumulation of fat in the abdomen, which also affects breathing. Obstructive sleep apnea is primarily common in obese people.

Here’s why.

The excess weight in obese patients creates fat deposits in the neck known as pharyngeal [5].

The pharyngeal fat blocks your upper airways during sleep when the airway is relaxed.

And when the airway is squeezed and forced through a restricted airway, it causes snoring — a common symptom of sleep apnoea [6].

Visceral fat in the abdomen is another risk factor for sleep apnea.

The excess fat in the belly compresses the chest walls and decreases lung volume, reducing its capacity and diminishing airflow.

Other lesser common causes include enlarged tonsils, which block the airway, a large neck, narrow throat, lung diseases, heart problems, acid reflux, and endocrine disorders such as thyroid disease and diabetes [7].

Related Article: If I Lose Weight Will I Stop Snoring?

Health Effects of Sleep Apnea and Excess Weight

A person with sleep apnea medical devices on his finger

People with sleep apnoea suffer from sleep deprivation and lack quality rest because of sleep-disordered breathing.

The effect of these conditions is stress on their metabolic, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems.

The conditions are even more compounded in overweight patients and can elevate their lung, heart, and metabolic disease risk [8].

Sleep Apnea and Cardiovascular Health

Sleep apnea sufferers often have a lapse in breathing while asleep; the oxygen supply drops to trigger a fight or flight response. When this occurs, the blood pressure surges, and the heart rate increases, forcing them to wake up.

The cycle continues throughout the night.

The never-ending cycle and the rising and falling oxygen levels in the blood can cause inflammation leading to the buildup of plaque in blood cells, a condition known as atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis can be linked with increased blood pressure, stroke, and heart attacks [9].

The other effects of sleep apnoea on cardiovascular health include:

  • The disruption of the nervous system controlling heartbeat and blood flow
  • Increase in carbon dioxide and glucose levels in the blood
  • An increased insulin resistance
  • Altering the flow of carbon dioxide and oxygen

As a result of the above effects, sleep apnoea is also associated with certain cardiovascular conditions [10].

Here are some of them:

  • Hypertension
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Heart failure
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischemic attacks (commonly known as ministrokes) 
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Metabolic syndrome (hypertension, obesity, dyslipidemia, and diabetes)

Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome (OHS) and Sleep Apnea

A person in a blue shirt holding his belly

Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome (OHS) is a combination of obesity and sleep-disordered breathing, which causes low levels of oxygen in the blood and high amounts of carbon dioxide at the same time [11].

Obstructive sleep apnea is common among people with OHS. Individuals with OHS experience exerting pressure against their chest wall and lungs, which interferes with their ability to take deep breaths [12].

Experts assert that an overwhelming majority (up to 90%) of people with OHS also have sleep apnoea.

However, the reverse is not true— not everyone that suffers from OSA has OHS [13].

Additional studies on OHS have revealed a direct relation to Body Mass Index (BMI). People with a BMI greater than 50 have a higher chance of OHS than others [14].

OHS can cause an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the blood while decreasing oxygen levels.

Individuals suffering from such sleep disorders are at a high risk of contracting cardiovascular disease [15].

Among the main culprits are heart failure and high blood pressure.

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Weight Gain?

A person measuring his belly size

Yes, sleep apnoea can cause weight gain. When you lack a good supply of oxygen when sleeping, you risk becoming overweight.

Let's break it down further.

Low Energy and Chronic Fatigue

Just one sleepless night is enough to make you feel like a zombie during the day. Now imagine weeks, months, even years of lack of quality sleep. Your energy levels are bound to go down.

Now, low energy is like being on battery-saving mode, only performing essential tasks and avoiding the demanding and non-essential functions.

Living a healthy lifestyle which includes performing tasks like going to the gym, grocery shopping, and cooking healthy food for a low-calorie diet, seems problematic.

This state can influence you to consume processed and unhealthy foods, ultimately leading to weight gain.

Moreover, the low energy levels cause you to sit idle for long periods during the day, not expending any additional calories, which doesn't help your situation.

Slow Metabolism

A person holding a bowl of chips while holding his stomach

Metabolism is the rate at which your body burns the calories you consume.

When you lack quality sleep, you’re mostly fatigued during the day.

Because of this, you tend to be less active, and the calories continue accumulating.

Over time, the lifestyle change leads to decreased resting metabolic rate.

You’re likely to gain weight without increasing your caloric intake [16].

Hormonal Changes

The lack of quality sleep also brings about hormonal imbalance, making it nearly impossible to lose weight [17].

When you’re not sleeping enough, the body is under enough stress to disrupt hormone production.

In particular, stress disrupts the production of leptin and ghrelin, hormones responsible for sending signals to the brain when your stomach is full and empty.

Leptin, which signals the brain when the stomach is full, is inhibited, while ghrelin, which signals the brain when the belly is empty, is produced more [18].

The result of this? Non-stop eating and a setback to your weight loss ambitions.

“Sleep apnea patients have significantly higher ghrelin levels, the hormone that makes you feel hungry, and significantly lower leptin levels, the hormone that makes you feel full,"

-Chelsea Rohrscheib, Ph.D., Lead Sleep Specialist & Neuroscientist at Wesper.

Increased Cravings and Decreased Willpower

Studies point out that you’re more likely to crave foods that give you a quick energy boost when you’re tired [19].

Furthermore, feeling tired continuously decreases your willpower and makes it challenging for you to make healthy choices.

Will Treating It Aid Weight Loss?

A man holding up a weighing scale high

Yes, treating sleep apnea aids in weight loss. OSA patients who manage their sleep apnoea find it easier to lose weight.

Studies subjected two sets of OSA patients, with one set comprising patients who had undergone CPAP treatment.

The results showed a significant decrease in ghrelin levels after two days of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) treatment [20].

Interestingly, the long-term use of CPAP, the most effective sleep apnea treatment, has also been tied to weight gain.

So, it's wise not to rely solely on CPAP as a method of weight control [21].

Other Sleep Apnea Treatment Options

A person with sleep apnea devices on her nose

Besides lifestyle changes and maintaining healthy body weight, here are a few treatments that work.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

As mentioned earlier, CPAP is the most effective treatment for sleep apnoea.

Actually, it's the first-line treatment for the same. Studies have found CPAP therapy effective in decreasing visceral fat and overall body fat in patients with severe OSA [22].

The CPAP therapy machine works to provide patients with constant air pressure to keep their airways open.

Patients who have used CPAP report positive changes, including disappearing severe sleep apnea symptoms.

Oral Appliances

Oral appliances are custom-made devices apnea patients wear on their mouths during sleep to keep their airways open.

They are designed to hold the tongue forward and reposition the jaw to avoid blocking the airways and to keep the upper airway from collapsing [23].

Mouth and Facial Muscle Therapy

A person getting his face massaged

Exercises that strengthen the facial and mouth muscles (myofunctional therapy) aid in repositioning the tongue.

Studies on the same have shown positive results in improving the quality of sleep and reducing symptoms of daytime sleepiness [24].

Surgical Procedures

If the above treatments don't work, the last resort is surgery.

The doctor schedules a series of surgeries, including jaw surgery, an implant, and the removal of tonsils [25].

FAQs

Does Sleep Apnea Make Weight Loss Harder

Yes, sleep apnea makes it hard to lose weight. First, you don't get enough sleep with obstructive sleep apnea because your airways are blocked, and you must constantly wake up to prevent suffocation.

This means you don't get sleep quality, which is essential to weight loss.

Does Sleep Apnea Cause Belly Fat?

Yes, sleep apnea causes belly fat accumulation but only in men.

Japanese researchers found an association between obstructive sleep apnea and visceral fat/belly fat build-up in men. However, they found no such association in women [26].

Can Dieting Help My Sleep Apnea?

Dieting can aid in reducing severe sleep apnea symptoms.

Weight loss reduces the size of your neck circumference, decreasing the pressure on your airway and making breathing easier. Eating healthy gives you the energy to exercise and lose weight.

Lose Weight to Reverse Sleep Apnea

If you’re already diagnosed with sleep apnea or are worried that you’re heading there, your best chance to reverse the condition or avoid it altogether is weight loss by maintaining a calorie deficit and exercising regularly.

I also suggest speeding things up with some fat-burning supplements containing natural ingredients with clinically proven dosages which we thoroughly tested ourselves:

Our clients who have used the products can attest to their effectiveness. And when you combine them with exercising, you’ll notice much faster progress.


References:

  1. https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1513/pats.200708-137MG
  2. https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/10.1164/rccm.201903-0692OC
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3581237/
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/weight-loss-breathing-devices-still-best-for-treating-obstructive-sleep-apnea-201310026713
  5. https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary-disorders/sleep-apnea/obstructive-sleep-apnea
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14713187/
  7. https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article/31/Supplement_2/S303/24789/Abdominal-Fat-and-Sleep-ApneaThe-chicken-or-the
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2546461/
  9. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea
  10. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/sleep-apnea
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30872398/
  12. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/obesity-hypoventilation-syndrome
  13. https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/10.1164/rccm.201410-1900OC
  14. https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/10.5664/jcsm.2986
  15. https://ufhealth.org/obesity-hypoventilation-syndrome-ohs
  16. https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/sleep-apnea/does-sleep-apnea-cause-weight-gain
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3065172/
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8583769/
  19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3763921/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12952256/
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2546451/
  22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10449691/
  23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6956298/
  24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6132228/
  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480570/
  26. https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1164/ajrccm-conference.2013.187.1_MeetingAbstracts.A5937

Was this article helpful?

About The Author