Can sleep apnoea cause you to gain weight?


Marianna Kilburn
Qualified Life Coach
@MariannaKilburn
Ask Marianna


01 November 2017

What is sleep apnoea?

Undiagnosed Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) is estimated to affect as many as 1.5 million people in the UK and it’s thought that around 40% of this number, 667, 000, may have severe forms of the disorder.1 Sleep apnoea can be difficult to diagnose as most of the symptoms will occur while you are sleeping and often go unnoticed or unrecognised.

The disorder is caused by a partial or complete obstruction of your upper airways. OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea and occurs when there is a significant pause in your breathing for up to 10 seconds or more. This can have an impact on your quality of sleep as when your breathing becomes shallow or hesitant, your body will immediately attempt to shift you out of deep sleep and into light sleep in order to regulate your breathing.

Unfortunately, this can result in a number of unhappy side effects, including:

  • Loud snoring
  • Tiredness during the day
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings
  • Dry mouth
  • Decreased libido

It’s also believed that the long-term ramifications of undiagnosed sleep apnoea can be considerably more damaging: depression, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

1https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/obstructive-sleep-apnoea-osa/health-care-professionals/health-economics-report

Does weight gain cause Obstructive Sleep Apnoea?

It’s believed that OSA is primarily caused by the muscles in your throat relaxing during sleep, causing an obstruction in the airways that result in snoring and breathing problems. Although the soft tissues in these muscles can be inflamed by allergies and certain medications, obesity is still a leading cause.

Weight gain can increase the size of your soft tissues, such as your tongue and tonsils, as well as your neck itself. All of these soft tissues and fats can place a strain on your airways, particularly during sleep when your throat muscles are more relaxed, which can obstruct your airways, leading to many of the aforementioned symptoms.

However, is it really as one sided as this? Yes, obesity can cause OSA but can sleep apnea also cause you to gain weight?

The vicious cycle of sleep apnoea and weight gain

I’ve already briefly touched upon how sleep apnoea can affect your sleep patterns but here I’m going to go into slightly more depth. As I’ve mentioned, sleep can loosely be divided into two different phases: deep sleep and light sleep.

You will move in and out of these phases as you sleep throughout the night but it’s believed that most of your physiological processes will happen during this deep sleep – the human growth hormone is released during this phase and your need for sleep is greatly reduced.

However, sleep apnoea can disrupt this phase and shift in you into a lighter state of sleep. This means that when you wake up, you often still feel tired and disorientated. These feelings can stay with you throughout the day and have a noticeable impact on your behaviour, including mood swings and hunger cravings.

In my blog ‘Is your lack of sleep causing you to overeat?’, I go more into depth about how sleep deprivation can impact your eating habits but essentially, a lack of sleep can inhibit your production of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that respectively decrease and increase your cravings for food.

Since your levels of ghrelin are raised, you are more likely to crave carbohydrates and sugary foods, not to mention all that excess tiredness is inevitably going to make you reach for the coffee jar. This ultimately raises your blood sugar levels, increases your waistline and causes further disruption to your sleeping patterns, causing a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape from.

How can you relieve Obstructive Sleep Apnoea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea is still largely undiagnosed amongst sufferers so if you start to display any symptoms, it’s important that you speak to your doctor. As I’ve mentioned, the long-term results of undiagnosed sleep apnoea aren’t pleasant and sometimes additional treatments are needed. In the meantime, you could try some of the suggestions below to help relieve some of your symptoms.

1 – Consider your diet

Even if obesity isn’t the primary cause of your sleep apnoea, losing some weight can still help so it’s important to find new ways of satisfying your hunger cravings. Reaching for a sugary treat can be tempting but in the long-run it isn’t going to keep your hunger at bay for long so I would opt for a snack that releases a slow steady form of energy and won’t cause a massive spike in your blood-sugar levels.

Bananas are a good option but so are complex forms of carbohydrates – brown rice, wholemeal bread and oats. Below I’ve listed a few of my favourite healthy snacks to give you some ideas but remember, drinking fluids is extremely important too so make sure you’re including plenty of plain water in your day-to-day routine – remember caffeine and fizzy drinks don’t count!

Salted Caramel Bliss Balls
Banana Bread Muffins with Dark Chocolate Sauce
Cashew & Banana Smoothie

2 – Get some exercise

If you’re feeling tired throughout the day that is going to inevitably affect your energy levels and how much exercise you are getting. The last thing you will feel like doing is going on a 5K run or doing 50 laps of your local swimming pool, however getting a certain amount of exercise will have a positive impact on your waistline and can even have an impact on your quality of sleep.

I’m not suggesting you immediately go and do an intense cardio session at your gym, especially if you’re new to exercising. Instead try to go on a brisk walk after work or consider a low-impact form such as yoga or tai chi. Our get active hub even has instructive videos for a few simple exercises you can do from home which should help you to get started.

3 – Avoid alcohol

Drinking excessive quantities of alcohol is never advisable and can have a number of repercussions for your health, including your sleep patterns. Since it can disrupt your sleep it’s always something I recommend cutting back on, however, it can also affect your breathing too!

It naturally slows your breathing and can relax the muscles in your throat which can cause problems for your upper airway. It may also worsen existing symptoms for OSA sufferers, such as snoring.2 

Studies have even found that drinking can cause the symptoms of OSA to occur, even in those that didn’t originally have the disorder!

2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC491372/

3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21432159

4 – Quit smoking

Regardless of whether you smoke or not, all of you are probably aware that smoking is bad news for your health. Not only has it been linked to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases, it also depletes your stores of key nutrients and can affect your sleep patterns. Even if you don’t suffer from sleep apnea, I would still recommend that you consider quitting.

When it comes to sleep apnea, there isn’t any definitive evidence that smoking can cause OSA, however, it can inflame the tissues in your nose and throat, lessening the space in your airways which can definitely instigate an episode of OSA. Smoking can also interrupt your sleep patterns which will make you more predisposed to the symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as sugar cravings.

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