Making this one simple change can help manage sleep apnea symptoms effectively

For years, obesity or excess weight has been said to be the main cause of obstructive sleep apnea, a chronic disorder that causes breathing difficulties during nighttime sleep. But, according to a new study, all one needs to make are certain tweaks in their eating habits, and not necessarily lose weight. The findings published in JAMA Network Open suggest that a simple diet, exercise, and lifestyle intervention can help deal with sleep apnea, which according to World Health Organization (WHO), affects 100 million people worldwide, but is preventable. The study is said to be significant in the backdrop of research suggesting that weight loss is needed to counter sleep apnea considering that obesity may block the airways at night.

As part of the study, researchers in Spain recruited 89 overweight and obese men who had moderate to severe sleep apnea and split them into two groups. One group underwent a simple diet, exercise, and lifestyle intervention where the participants were counseled to eat more healthy whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, olive oil, seafood, poultry, eggs, and herbs. They were also encouraged to avoid ultra-processed foods, processed meats, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The second group did not undergo any of these lifestyle interventions.

Participants in both groups used a medical device called the CPAP machine, which delivers a gentle and steady flow of pressurised air through a tube and a mask that users wear while they sleep. CPAP is the standard treatment for sleep apnea. It prevents apnea episodes, but can be uncomfortable, and many people stop using it or struggle to keep it on at night.

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After just eight weeks, the group that adopted healthier habits had a 51 per cent reduction in the number of apnea episodes they experienced during each hour of nightly sleep. About 15 per cent achieved complete remission of their sleep apnea, and 45 per cent no longer needed their CPAP machines, the study mentioned.

The study also noted that on average, the healthy habits group lost about 16 pounds — roughly seven per cent of their body weight. By six months, they had sustained their weight loss, and the number of participants whose sleep apnea went into remission doubled. Roughly 62 per cent of them no longer needed their CPAP machines.

The study also noted that there were “significant reductions in blood pressure, which, according to the researchers, lowered their risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease by more than 30 per cent”.

The other group did not see any significant improvement in their severity of sleep apnea while on an average, losing less than a pound of body weight.

“The results were far better than we expected,” Carneiro-Barrera said in a statement. She and her colleagues are now recruiting 500 women with sleep apnea for a larger, follow-up study.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, unable to stay asleep, morning headache, feeling of irritability, having a dry mouth after waking up, gasping for breath during sleep and most importantly excessive daytime sleepiness or tiredness. Loud snoring is the most common symptom of sleep apnea. However not everyone who snores loud suffers from sleep apnea. Silent apnea refers to a condition in which the vibration of the tissues that caused snoring during airway collapse remains; thus, it persists but snoring does not.

According to Dr Ravi Shekhar Jha, director and head, pulmonology, Fortis Hospitals, Faridabad, sleep apnea is one of the most under reported but dangerous diseases, which is treatable if recognised and diagnosed properly. “It is majorly due to weight gain, wherein there is fat deposition all over, especially around neck. This lead to recurrent fall in oxygen level while sleeping and as a result of it, patients remain sleepy throughout the day. Recurrent fall in oxygen level leads to increase in blood pressure levels, and a tendency to get sugar and many other diseases,” Dr Jha told

Dr Vivek Verma, senior consultant, Dept, of Pulmonology, Max Super Specialty Hospital, Dehradun mentioned that toned muscles, especially that of the neck (as a result of exercise) and a healthy diet “can have a beneficial outcome in case of sleep apnea”.

“Once you have developed sleep apnea, CPAP machine is the immediate treatment in most of the cases. However, with adequate diet, (and weight loss), the disease can be treated even without any machine. The patients must avoid any processed food, high sugar diet, and should try to reduce carbohydrate intake. Plenty of water also helps, but maintaining your protein intake is very important,” Dr Jha said.

Dr Santosh Pandey, founder and CEO, Dr Santosh Healthcare Centre and Rejua Energy Centre, Mumbai believes a plant-based diet works “great” in mitigating sleep apnea risk.  “It is important to consider that even if you are not overweight, there are foods that may worsen your sleep apnea. Highly processed food, sugary drinks, deep fried snacks and refined carbohydrates can negatively affect our sleeping habits. So choosing plant-based diet for sleep apnea will be a great idea,” Dr Pandey said adding that fruits, vegetables, and cereals are good sources of nutrients that will give long term saturation and will not take much energy to process.

If one can combine healthy eating habits with simple physical exercises like increasing number of daily steps, within couple of months you may see improvement in your sleep apnea, said Dr Rahul Sharma, additional director, Pulmonology, Fortis Hospital Noida. “It is not a low caloric diet, it is simply eating healthy alternatives. Every time you buy food supplies or groceries, try to pick healthy ones,” Dr Sharma added.

Noting the need for regulating the melatonin hormone produced in the pineal gland, which helps us sleep better, Sumaiya A, clinical dietitian, CDE, Fortis Hospital, Kalyan said, “Melatonin regulates the human cycle of sleep and wakefulness; Melatonin levels are higher when sun is down and lower when the sun’s up. Certain food help active the melatonin hormones that are eggs, milk, grapes, fish, nuts, cherries, and pistachios. A person should consume these in moderate quantity for better results, controlling portion size which helps in better health.”

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