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Sleep Apnea and Weight Gain

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Has anyone ever mentioned that during sleep you snore loudly and have completely silent pauses followed by choking or gasping? Do you often have dreams of drowning, choking or not being able to breathe? Do you suffer from daytime drowsiness, morning headaches, ongoing depression and sleep deprivation? If so you may be experiencing sleep apnea.


What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious, and at times life threatening condition where during sleep breathing is partially or wholly blocked for periods lasting from 10 to 30 seconds. The most common type of apnea is ‘obstructive sleep apnea’ (OSA) which can occur hundreds of times a night with the majority of sufferers completely unaware of their sleep problems. This temporary cessation in breathing is usually caused by a crowded or narrow airway passage at the back of the tongue that may be blocked by extra fatty tissue in the throat, enlarged tonsils or adenoids and even a larger than average tongue. A soft palate and/or angular jaw line are also contributing factors.


Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea may include:

  • Frequent cessation of breathing during sleep

  • Choking or gasping for air during sleep

  • Loud snoring

  • Frequently waking up

  • Sweating and chest pains while sleeping

  • Feeling tired during the day from a lack of sleep

  • Sudden and inexplicable weight gain

  • Headaches in the morning or at night


Effects of Sleep Apnea on the Body

In the body, sleep apnea reduces blood oxygen levels and raises carbon dioxide levels depriving the vital organs of oxygenated blood and putting tremendous stress on the lungs, heart, brain and immune system. With each gasp to restart breathing the person awakens causing sleep deprivation.


Sleep Apnea and Weight Gain

There are two predominant reasons why sleep apnea may be related to weight gain. Firstly, during an episode the body releases adrenaline to restart breathing. A spike of adrenaline in the body triggers carbohydrate metabolism that results in an increase of blood glucose levels. In response to high blood glucose the body releases the hormone insulin that causes the sugar to be stored as body fat. In this situation instead of the body burning body fat for energy while it sleeps, it is continually making more. This is likely the reason that weight gain is one of the symptoms of sleep apnea and also explains why sleep apnea has been independently linked to insulin resistance.


Secondly, sleep apnea is related to weight gain because it causes a lack of sleep. When the body is sleep deprived levels of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that control hunger and fullness, are thrown off balance. With these two hormones no longer working in sync with each other, people who are overtired because of sleep apnea are more likely to make unhealthy food choices and overeat. For more information go to the topic Sleep and Weight Loss.


Causes and Risk Factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Approximately two-thirds of all patients suffering from sleep apnea are overweight or obese. It has also been found that more than one third of people with Type 2 diabetes, a health condition commonly associated with being overweight or obese, also have OSA.


More men than women experience OSA with about 4% of adult males affected and 2% of adult women. Sleep apnea also occurs in three times as many adults over the age of 65 as under. Sleep apnea has also proven to be more common in those of Far Eastern and African ancestry and there may also be some inherited genes that increase the risk.


How Body Weight is Related to Sleep Apnea

Body weight is one of the most prominent factors affecting apnea with the stereotype of a sufferer being a heavyset person with a short, thick bull neck. A ten percent increase in weight leads to a six fold risk increase for OSA. For every 10% decrease in body weight there is a corresponding decrease in OSA symptoms. Anatomical risk factors in men are a neck larger than 17 inches in circumference and a waist larger than 40 inches. For women the risks increase with a neck size larger than 16 inches and a waist larger than 35 inches.


Health Conditions Associated with Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, and other cardiovascular complications. Heart function is reduced in direct proportion to the severity of sleep apnea. Anyone suffering with sleep apnea has to work much harder simply to run core body functions.


Sleep Apnea Treatment

But take heart if sleep apnea is ruining your life because help is available. For mild apnea sufferers your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes such as losing weight, increasing exercise, quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol, sleeping pills and sleeping on your side rather than your back. Although snoring is a huge part of apnea, treatments designed to curb snoring (nasal strips, throat sprays) do not in anyway help with OSA. For moderate and severe cases a ‘continuous positive air pressure’ (CPAP) machine is used with a breathing mask at night to keep the upper airways open. For help in diagnosing the presence and severity of OSA you may want to attend a local ‘sleep lab’ for observation. Ask your family doctor for information about the one closest to you.


If you think you may be a sleep apnea sufferer or you are sleeping with someone you suspect may be having breathing cessation, consult a medical doctor immediately because the strain on the heart can be fatal.