Does Weight Affect Sleep Apnea?

There’s no doubt that being overweight contributes to sleep apnea. Obese patients have nearly double the risk for developing sleep apnea compared to patients with a healthy weight.  And if you gain weight after being diagnosed with sleep apnea, chances are six times higher that your apnea will worsen.

At West Houston Surgical Associates, our patients experience significant improvement in their sleep apnea as they lose weight following bariatric surgery — and they’re not alone.

A study published in Sleep Medicine in 2017 reported that researchers followed obese patients for 12 months after bariatric surgery. The experts found that bariatric surgery cured sleep apnea in 45% of the participants and nearly cured or significantly improved the problem in 78% of the study participants.

What it means to have obstructive sleep apnea

You’ve probably heard the definition of sleep apnea and know that it means your breathing temporarily stops while you sleep. But have you ever wondered what that means, exactly? Here are a few details.

When you have sleep apnea, your breathing stops for at least 10 seconds every time you have an apnea episode. How often does that happen? Your breathing stops at least five times every hour, but that number can be significantly higher.

The severity of your sleep apnea is determined by the number of times you cease breathing while you sleep:

Here’s another way to look at it: Even if you barely cross the line into the moderate category, you stop breathing 15 times every hour. If you sleep for seven hours, you stop breathing 105 times every night. That’s nearly 18 minutes that you don’t breathe each night.

Every time you stop breathing, oxygen levels plummet. Before long, your brain wakes you just enough to breathe. You don’t fully waken, so you’re not aware of the apnea episode; however, others in your house may hear it happen.

Why you stop breathing during sleep apnea

After you fall asleep, the muscles in your tongue and other soft tissues in your mouth and throat relax. As your tongue relaxes, it falls toward the back of your throat, where it partially or completely covers your airway. Additionally, the soft tissues surrounding the airway relax and collapse in, making the airway smaller and contributing to the blockage.

You start to snore when the airway is partially covered and the air you breathe in makes the tissues vibrate. You stop breathing and have an apnea episode when the airway becomes completely covered.

How your weight affects sleep apnea

Being overweight leads to excessive fat in your neck and in the tissues surrounding your upper airway. The extra fat physically narrows the airway, making it easier for your tongue to block the opening. The stored fat also increases the collapsibility of the soft tissues surrounding the airway, contributing to or worsening sleep apnea.

The amount of fat in your neck is so closely associated with sleep apnea that neck circumference is a criterion used to determine your likelihood of having the problem. A circumference of 17 inches or more in men, and 16 inches or higher in women, indicates enough neck fat to worry about sleep apnea.

Carrying weight in your neck isn’t the only concern when it comes to sleep apnea. Abdominal fat also affects the problem. Excess belly fat diminishes lung function by pushing on the diaphragm and chest wall. This makes it difficult for your lungs to expand and fill with air, which in turn affects the pressure in your airway. As this pressure changes, it increases the chance that the soft tissues will close in on the airway.

Abdominal obesity may partly explain why men have double the risk of developing sleep apnea compared to women. Men tend to gain weight in their belly, while premenopausal women store more fat in their hips and thighs.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea and you’ve had trouble losing weight, it may be time to consider bariatric surgery to prevent serious health complications. The loss of oxygen during apnea episodes triggers a sequence of events that leads to high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmias, and heart failure. Additionally, disrupted sleep affects your memory, mood, and overall brain function.

To learn more, call West Houston Surgical Associates, or book an appointment online.

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