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Proven Weight Loss Strategies for Sleep Apnea Sufferers

Posted May 21 2010 10:18am

My wife just commented to me that just by eating dinner about one hour earlier than usual for the past few weeks, she's automatically lost about 2-3 pounds. We normally eat about 3 hours before bedtime, but by the time we finish dinner and have fruit for dessert, it's about two and a half hours before we go to bed at 10PM. Even our children now seem less tired and more alert during the day. Although we decided to make this change to increase our sleep quality, my wife's weight loss was an unexpected side effect. So how does this apply to sleep apnea sufferers?

The Sleep Apnea Stereotype

At almost every sleep apnea lecture that I've seen in my career, the speaker almost always puts up a picture of Joe the fat boy from Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. If you read any scientific study about obstructive sleep apnea, it almost always starts with, "…typically seen in middle aged or older obese men who snore heavily with large necks."

Although described 30 or so years ago in these stereotypical men, now we know that it can occur even in young, thin women who don't snore. But many overweight people, especially as they get older, will snore or have obstructive sleep apnea. It's estimated that overall, about 24% of men and 9% of women will have it, but by the time you reach your 70 to 80s, the incidence about 55%. Being overweight is still a major risk factor for development of obstructive sleep apnea. If you're overweight and have sleep apnea, then it's much harder to lose weight than if you didn't have sleep apnea. Let me explain why.

How Hormones Affect Your Appetite

It's been proven that poor sleep (quality or quantity) can promote weight gain through various mechanisms. Leptin is one major hormone that provides information about energy status to your brain—essentially, it tells your brain that you have enough energy. Low levels of leptin causes hunger. Normally, leptin increases after you eat, but sleep deprivation lowers this hormone, making you hungry. As leptin drops, your cortisol levels will also increase. As I've mentioned numerous times in my book, Sleep, Interrupted, poor sleep efficiency cause a low-grade physiologic stress reaction that increases your cortisol levels. This hormone also makes you more hungry. Other studies have shown that not only will you be more hungry, you'll tend to crave fattier, sugary, high carb foods.

You can imagine how once this process starts, it's a vicious cycle: Poor sleep makes you more hungry, so you eat more or snack close to bedtime. More frequent obstructions causes your stomach juices to be suctioned up into your throat, causing more inflammation and swelling. These juices can then go into your nose and lungs, causing further inflammation and swelling. Weight gain then narrows your throat further, aggravating sleep apnea, which makes you sleep less efficiently.

First Steps Toward Losing Weight

So what can you do if you have sleep apnea and are overweight? Is it hopeless?

Fortunately, there are steps that you can take that if followed properly, can not only help most people lose pounds, but also sleep better in the process. The first and most important thing is to eat as early as possible before bedtime. I know I keep repeating this, but you'll be surprised by how many people continue to eat late or snack just before bedtime. Three to four hours is the general recommendation to avoid eating before going to bed. The only thing you can have is water within this timeframe. The same goes for any kind of alcohol, since alcohol relaxes your throat muscles, aggravating obstructions and arousals.

The second most important thing to do is to make sure that you can breathe well through your nose. If your nose is stuffy, the challenge is in figuring out what's causing your nasal congestion, since there are a number of different reasons. In many cases, there's more than one reason. This is a huge topic that I cover in my Ask Dr. Park teleseminar called Un-Stuff Your Stuffy Nose. I also have various articles and blogs about this issue on my website at doctorstevenpark.com.

Needless to say, you also have to eat healthy and exercise regularly. I'll leave the specific recommendations for other respective experts in this area. One thing to point out, though, is that if you lift weights or engage in any activity that bulks up your upper chest and neck muscles, remember that your upper airway is unprotected, and that that any degree of neck muscle enlargement and press in on your upper airway. This is why many bodybuilders and weightlifters snore.

Eating earlier helps to reduce inflammation and swelling in your throat, and better nasal breathing lessens the vacuum effect that's created in the throat when you breathe in while sleeping. These two steps alone (along with eating healthy and regular exercise) will help many people, but to various degrees. For some, making these conservative changes alone may be enough, but with others, they will need some form of formal treatment for their obstructive sleep apnea. I won't get into the treatment options for sleep apnea since that's a HUGE topic in itself. For more information about sleep apnea treatment, I have lots of practical information on my website or you can find one comprehensive resource by reading my book, Sleep. Interrupted.

Sleep More, Lose Weight

Lastly, most people in general are sleep deprived. Lack of sleep, in addition to inefficient sleep due to sleep-breathing problems, can also cause similar weight promoting issues. A great example is when Glamour magazine asked women volunteers to try to get consistently 7.5 hours of sleep every night for 10 weeks. Many women lost anywhere from 6 to 15 pounds, all just by sleeping more. Studies have shown that lack of sleep (5 hours or less) per night is a major risk factor for significant weight gain.

So whether or not you are overweight, the recommendations outlined above will help you to breathe better and sleep better. Even if you are thin and don't have obstructive sleep apnea, following these recommendations can the onset of sleep-breathing problems and ultimately lessen the risks that can go along with obstructive sleep apnea. If you are overweight, this is the first step toward losing unwanted pounds.

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