What is obstructive sleep apnea? Learn about the condition, as well as its relationship to your health and weight.
The thought of not being able to breathe while you sleep is enough to keep anyone up at night. But without sounding too scary, that’s what happens to those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that can cause some serious harm to your zzz’s and your health. Read on to find out more about this sleep disorder and how it affects your weight, too.
What is obstructive sleep apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (or OSA) stands out from your typical sleep issues because it affects your breathing. If you have sleep apnea, you’ll either take shallow breaths throughout the night or you could stop breathing altogether. Frightening, yes, but that pause in oxygen intake only lasts for a few seconds on and off. In fact, you might not even notice the changes to your inhales and exhales. But if you sleep with a partner, they might hear you gasping for air. This reduction or stoppage of airflow that leads to OSA often comes from a blockage in your upper airway1.
Symptoms and Signs of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
A few factors will signal it’s time to get your sleep (and your health) checked out by a medical pro. For example, consistently getting less than seven hours of sleep each night, snoring loudly, feeling super tired or fatigued during the day (and on most days), or having a neck circumference greater than 17 inches if you’re a man and 16 inches if you’re a woman, should all put you on alert for OSA.
You might be thinking, ‘wait, neck circumference has something to do with it?’ Yes. A larger neck circumference can mean you have fat deposits that block your airway, leading to those shortened inhales and exhales or a complete stop in breathing throughout the night. That’s why obese individuals have a higher chance of having obstructive sleep apnea.
Other factors that can up your risk of OSA: a family history, your age, and even lifestyle habits like drinking alcohol, smoking, eating an unhealthy diet, or lack of exercise1.
How Sleep Affects Your Health and Weight Loss
One of the biggest problems with sleep apnea when it comes to your weight: it messes with your hunger hormones. In particular, poor sleep increases the hormone that tells us to continue eating (ghrelin) and it decreases the one that signals us to stop eating (leptin). So, if you find yourself reaching for more snacks during the day, it could stem from some low-quality zzz’s.
Research shows that insufficient sleep at night means our bodies need to adapt to an increased need for energy to keep us awake during the day. This often leads to an overconsumption of calories2. Other science shows sleep apnea can increase insulin resistance, which can make it more difficult to lose weight and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes3. Obstructive sleep apnea can also up your chances of getting conditions like asthma, heart disease, and cognitive and behavioral disorders1.
The Best Sleep Practices for Weight Loss
Whether you have sleep apnea or you simply have trouble falling or staying asleep, it’s smart to set yourself up for a night of quality rest. For starters, give yourself enough time to actually catch those zzz’s, which might require you to hit the sheets a little earlier at night or cancel appointments in the morning. Easier said than done, but assessing your schedule is a smart first step to better sleep hygiene.
Also, setting a bedtime and wake-up time that you stick to every day (that includes the weekends!) will help regulate your circadian clock so you’re tired enough to put your head to the pillow at night and you’re well-rested come morning4. Habits like putting your devices away an hour before bed, skipping alcohol and heavy meals a couple of hours before laying down, and avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon can all help you get better sleep, too. Spending time outside, exercising regularly, and creating some nighttime relaxation practices will also set you up for quality shut-eye.
What To Do if You Think You Have Obstructive Sleep Apnea
First, answer these four questions that help determine your risk for obstructive sleep apnea. If you answer yes to any, then fill out this sleep apnea test sheet. This helps you further assess your risk for the condition. And if you find you’re at intermediate to high risk of OSA, it’s time to make a call to your doctor. While some docs recommend a breathing device, lifestyle factors (like weight loss and healthy eating and exercise habits) can also help treat obstructive sleep apnea. After all, sleep goes hand-in-hand with your weight and your well-being.
To learn more about how your biology affects your weight, check out the SoWell Health Weight Biology Report, where you’ll learn more about your overall health and well-being.
1 National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “Sleep Apnea.”
2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. April 2013.
3 Pediatric Endocrinology. Role of Sleep and Sleep Loss in Hormonal Release and Metabolism. November 2009.
4 National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency: Strategies for Getting Enough Sleep.”