Can weight loss cure sleep apnea?
There are clear connections between sleep apnea and other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease that are improved with weight loss.
How does weight loss affect sleep apnea?
While studies have shown that losing weight decreases the severity of this sleep disorder, its may not completely eliminate the need for CPAP.
Losing Weight Decreases Severity of Sleep Apnea
The connection between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and weight is well established. In fact, being overweight or obese is considered one of the primary risk factors of sleep apnea. This is because when extra tissue accumulates around the upper airway, it can change the shape of the airway or the weight can make the throat more likely to collapse during sleep.
About half of sleep apnea sufferers are overweight1.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that studies consistently show that weight loss reduces the severity of sleep apnea. Not only does it reduce the number of apneas that occur, but it also improves the quality of patients’ sleep.
Weight loss CAN cure mild sleep apnea
One study2 monitored the sleep quality of 72 overweight patients with mild obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The patients changed to a low-calorie diet and received lifestyle counseling, which resulted in a significant decrease in their BMIs. After losing weight, the subjects’ mean number of apnea events per hour (their apnea-hypopnea index, or AHI, learn more about what that means here) decreased significantly. Post weight-loss, the number of patients with sleep apnea decreased by 75%.
Additionally, the results of this study were maintained for a one-year follow-up.
Weight loss reduces but does not eliminate sleep apnea in patients with severe OSA
Another study3 investigated weight loss in patients with severe obstructive sleep apnea. After losing on average 20+ pounds, the subjects’ AHIs decreased by about 25 events per hour! Plus, their sleep patterns improved, as the patients spent more time in deeper, more restorative sleep stages. However, the patients’ AHI was still around 30 episodes per hour–which meets the criteria for moderate to severe sleep apnea (learn more about understanding sleep study results here).
A similar result was observed when sleep apnea patients underwent weight-loss surgery4. Though the frequency of their apnea events decreased significantly, the mean AHI post-surgery was still consistent with moderately severe OSA.
CPAP therapy may still be needed to treat severe sleep apnea, even after weight loss
It’s important to remember that extra weight is not the only cause of sleep apnea. A small jaw, a large neck, large tonsils and adenoids, genetic predisposition, and other factors could be contributing to this sleep disorder. In all likelihood, a case of severe sleep apnea is caused by a combination of these factors–so weight loss alone may not completely eliminate the problem. CPAP therapy is the gold-standard therapy for sleep apnea (learn more about CPAP here) and is the only treatment that is 100% effective when used properly every night (learn about alternatives to CPAP here).
Weight loss (or gain) may change your CPAP pressure requirements
While weight loss might not completely cure sleep apnea in every case, it definitely has a beneficial effect. If you have significantly altered your lifestyle or lost weight, it may be time to reevaluate your sleep apnea treatment. You could require a lower PAP pressure to keep your airway open, or you might not need treatment any more at all. Conversely, if you have recently gained weight, you may have higher pressure requirements. Typically, a titration study will be ordered to assess your pressure requirements (learn more about different study types here). You may also benefit from using an autoset CPAP device which adjusts its pressure based on your requirements throughout the night (learn about the difference between CPAP and APAP here).
If you have a question about your CPAP therapy or think you might need a new pressure, contact us to make sure your treatment is as effective and comfortable as possible.
1) “Who is at risk for sleep apnea?” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
2) Tuomilehto, Henri P. I. et al. “Lifestyle Intervention with Weight Reduction: First-line Treatment in Mild Obstructive Sleep Apnea.” American Thoracic Society Journals.
3) Philip L. Smith, M.D. et al. “Weight Loss in Mildly to Moderately Obese Patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea.” Annals of Internal Medicine.
4) David L. Greenburg, MD, MPH et al. “Effects of Surgical Weight Loss on Measures of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Meta-Analysis.” The American Journal of Medicine.
Other posts you may find interesting:
- The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Diabetes
- How Does Sleep Apnea Affect the Heart?
- What are the Side Effects of Using CPAP?
- Should I Pay Cash for my CPAP Machine and Supplies?
- How Often Can I Get a New CPAP Machine?
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2015 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Comments previously posted on Sleepdr.com/blog:
It’s so interesting how weight can effect sleep and sleep disorders. Thank you for the great article!
Hi Michelle. It is interesting and inspiring. Weight loss is one of the least invasive interventions for treating (and preventing) sleep apnea.