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How weight loss aids sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a potential sleep disorder in which breathing pauses or repeatedly stops and starts or infrequent breathing occurs in sleep.

Preeta Singhal
February 11, 2021

Let’s quickly understand what sleep apnea is?

Sleep apnea is a potential sleep disorder in which breathing pauses or repeatedly stops and starts or infrequent breathing occurs in sleep. It affects the way to breathe in sleep and each pause is an apnea which lasts for several seconds to minutes. It occurs at a frequency of 5 times per hour, jolting out of your natural sleep.

A rising health problem in India

Globally, obstructive sleep apnea is on the rise and there is a steady increase in the number of people in India as well who are suffering from this sleep disorder.

A study conducted in 2015 by a consumer products firm had revealed that nearly 93% of Indians are sleep-deprived. The prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea has been observed to be higher in the western region as compared to the other parts of the country. 

Indian men are at a greater risk

Usually, men are twice as prone to obstructive sleep apnea than women. According to a research paper, obstructive sleep apnea, in the Indian population cross-sectional studies conducted across various sub-populations reported a prevalence of 13.7% among adults and 7.5% among urban middle-aged men.

Sleep apnea in men

Are you at risk of sleep apnea?

Did you know, anyone of you can be at risk and develop sleep apnea. However, certain factors which are listed below increase the risk:

  1. Excess weight: Obesity and overweight are the major causes of sleep apnea. In case of excess weight, fat deposits around the upper airway tract which can lead to obstruction in breathing. Certain medical conditions associated with obesity like hypothyroidism, PCOS can also lead to sleep apnea.  However, not everyone with obstructive sleep apnea is overweight and vice versa. Thin people can develop the disorder, too.
  2. Hypertension (High blood pressure): Obstructive sleep apnea is relatively common in people with hypertension. About a third to half of people with high blood pressure also have this condition. High blood pressure can trigger it or make it worse. Your odds are higher if you have a hard time controlling your blood pressure. The poor rest that comes from sleep apnea can, in turn, raise your blood pressure.
  3. Anatomical differences: Physical attributes that can contribute to sleep apnea include a small upper airway, a small or receding jaw, a long soft palate, a high tongue position, a deviated septum, and enlarged tonsils and adenoids.
  4. Smoking: According to a study conducted by the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention, University of Wisconsin, Madison, smokers are three times more likely to have sleep apnea than those who have never smoked.
  5. Neck circumference greater than 17 inches (43.2 cm) in men or 16 inches (40.6 cm) in women are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.
  6. Diabetes: Studies show that about 71% of people with diabetes may have sleep apnea. Sleep Apnea Causes Hypoxemia and Fragmented Sleep Which May Lead to Diabetes.
  7. Sex: In general, men are twice as likely as premenopausal women to have obstructive sleep apnea. The frequency of obstructive sleep apnea increases in women after menopause.
  8. Age: According to several studies, the probability of obstructive sleep apnea increases with age from 2% at age 30 for females to 28% at 60 years. For males, the figure rises from 4% at age 30 to 67% at 60 years of age.
  9. A family history of sleep apnea: If you have family members with obstructive sleep apnea, you may be at increased risk.

Should I be worried about this disorder?

Sleep apnea can also cause many health problems—in some cases deadly. So it’s important to take it seriously. 

The chronic sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea can result in daytime sleepiness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and an increased risk of accidents and errors in your daily activities.

Sleep apnea also has a mental impact. It can trigger moodiness and irritability and cause anxiety and depression. It also increases your risk of other serious health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, and stroke.

Some major complications are:

  • Daytime fatigue and sleepiness: The repeated awakenings associated with obstructive sleep apnea make normal, restorative sleep impossible. People with obstructive sleep apnea often experience severe daytime drowsiness, fatigue, and irritability. They may have difficulty concentrating and find themselves falling asleep at work while watching TV or even when driving. Children and young people with obstructive sleep apnea may do poorly in school and commonly have attention or behavior problems.
  • Cardiovascular problems: Sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during obstructive sleep apnea increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system. Many people with obstructive sleep apnea develop high blood pressure (hypertension), which can increase the risk of heart disease. The more severe the obstructive sleep apnea, the greater the risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.
  • Complications with medications and surgery: Obstructive sleep apnea also is a concern with certain medications and general anesthesia. These medications, such as sedatives, narcotic analgesics, and general anesthetics, relax your upper airway and may worsen your obstructive sleep apnea. People with obstructive sleep apnea may be more prone to complications after surgery.

Can a better diet help in sleep?

Eating the right combination of foods before going to sleep and which foods to avoid in the evening may be beneficial in enhancing sleep. 

There has been a lot of buzz about micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other substances found in food. (We’re all familiar with the macronutrients – carbs, fats, and proteins.) Micronutrients have been linked to a wide variety of health benefits and some promote healthy sleep.

Diet for sleep apnea

The micronutrient food-types good for sleep include:

 1. Melatonin-Rich Foods: Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body it's time to sleep.  It’s tied into the body’s sleep/wake cycle, increasing when it's dark and decreasing when it’s light. It tends to drop as you age and melatonin supplements have become popular.

What to include:

Fruits – cherries, pomegranate, grapes

Vegetables – corn, asparagus, tomatoes, olives, grapes, broccoli, cucumber

Grains – rice, barley, oats

Nuts and seeds – walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, mustard seeds, flaxseed 

2. Tryptophan-Rich Foods: Tryptophan is one of the many amino acids found in protein.  In the body, it can be turned into the neurotransmitter serotonin which is then used to make melatonin.

In studies, dietary tryptophan intake has been linked to sleep duration and tryptophan supplementation has been found to improve sleep.

What to include:

Dairy – milk, yogurt

Fruits – apples, bananas, peaches, avocado

Vegetables – Spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, seaweed

Legumes – kidney beans, lima beans, black beans, split peas, chickpeas

Meats – chicken, seafood

Nuts and seeds – walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, mustard seeds, flaxseed 

3. Calcium-Rich Foods: Calcium is a mineral used by the body for many different things.  In the brain, it helps the body make melatonin from tryptophan. Did you know that calcium intake has been associated with poor sleep?  Calcium-rich diets have been shown to help patients with insomnia.

What to include:

Dairy – milk, cheese, yogurt

Fruits – apples, bananas, peaches, avocado

Vegetables – dark leafy greens, green snap peas, okra, broccoli

Legumes – soybeans

Meats – sardines 

4. Magnesium-Rich Foods: Magnesium is a mineral used by the body for many biochemical reactions and supports biological functions like the immune system.  It’s also important for sleep and acts as a natural relaxant to help deactivate adrenaline.

In a 2012 clinical study, magnesium supplementation was found to improve sleep.


What to include:

Diary – yogurt

Fruits – avocados, bananas,

Vegetables – leafy greens

Legumes – soybeans

Meats – fish

Nuts and seeds – almonds, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, cashews, flaxseed, pecans

Whole grains

5. Vitamin B-rich Foods: The B-complex vitamins help make energy out of food.  They also play a role in moods and sleep.

In one study, deficiencies in vitamin B-6 were linked to depression and poor sleep.  In another, lower consumption of dietary B-6 was tied to insomnia.

What to include:

Diary – eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt

Fruits – avocados, bananas, citrus fruits

Vegetables – leafy greens, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, seaweed

Legumes – beans, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, kidney beans, pinto beans, lima beans, black beans, split peas, chickpeas

Meats – fish, chicken, pork, red meat

Nuts and seeds

Whole grains

So far, we’ve talked about the foods that can help promote sleep.

Let’s now take a look at the foods that may more directly help with sleep apnea symptoms.

Did you know that sleep apnea has also been connected to inflammation?

Inflammation has been found to play a role in many health conditions, so it’s no surprise researchers have found a link to sleep apnea. Patients with obstructive sleep apnea, the most common sleep apnea type, have upper airway and systemic inflammation.

In fact, studies show that sleep apnea severity has been found to correlate with high levels of inflammation – the worse your sleep apnea is the more inflammation is found in the body.

Anti-inflammatory diets have grown in popularity as a natural way to help the body heal.

They focus on foods to avoid:

  • Sugary drinks, snacks, and desserts
  • Refined carbs (white bread, white pasta)
  • Processed meats and foods
  • Processed soybean and corn oils
  • Trans fats
  • Excessive alcohol

And foods to eat more of:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil)
  • Fatty fish
  • Nuts
  • Spices such as turmeric and cinnamon


GOLDEN TIP - Consult a dietician. Your diet coach will create a customized diet plan that will help you treat and control the symptoms of sleep apnea. The diet given to you should: 


  • help you lose weight
  • rich in nutrients that support sleep and your sleep apnea treatment
  • missing foods that can cause problems for sleep and sleep apnea

Let's discuss about other lifestyle changes that you can do to control sleep apnea

For mild cases of sleep apnea, lifestyle changes may be enough to treat the issue. 

  • Lose weight: If you are overweight, losing weight can have an enormous impact. While it is usually not a total cure, it can reduce the number of breathing episodes you experience, reduce your blood pressure, and decrease daytime sleepiness. Even a small amount of weight loss can open up your throat and improve sleep apnea symptoms. A new study confirms that weight loss can significantly improve and potentially eliminate obstructive sleep apnea symptoms in obese people. Researchers found that people with severe obstructive sleep apnea who lost the recommended amount of weight were three times more likely to experience complete remission of sleep apnea symptoms compared with people who didn’t lose weight.
  • Exercise: Even when exercise does not lead to weight loss, it can decrease your sleep apnea breathing episodes and improve your alertness and energy during the day. Aerobic exercise, resistance training, and yoga are all good choices for strengthening the muscles in your airways and improving breathing.
  • Sleep on your side: Lying on your back is the worst position for sleep apnea, as it causes the jaw, tongue, and other soft tissues to drop back toward the throat, narrowing your airway. Sleeping on your stomach isn’t much better, since lying face down or twisting your head to the side both obstruct breathing. Lying on your side, on the other hand, helps keep your airway open. If you find side sleeping uncomfortable or you tend to roll on to your back after you’re asleep, countered side pillows or body pillows may help.
  • Avoid alcohol, anti-anxiety medication, and other sedatives, especially before bedtime, because they relax the muscles in the throat and interfere with breathing. 



Sleep apnea is a medical condition that can severely impact the quality of life for those who suffer from it. Excessive daytime sleepiness in most individuals and many other chronic diseases can go hand-in-hand with it.

To treat this disease, there are several options both in terms of diet and lifestyle modifications. The primary focus of a successful long-term regime for patients with sleep apnea should target sustainable, permanent weight loss with forming healthier eating habits & making some lifestyle modifications.

It is extremely important to visit your dietician if you are battling sleep apnea. Your personal health coach can help you develop a meal plan so you can be successful in your weight loss journey, while getting all of your essential nutrients, treating sleep apnea, and ultimately preventing any complications related to sleep apnea. 

Making small but significant lifestyle changes can have long-term effects in treating sleep apnea. It can be challenging to make these changes, but the benefits are worth it.

About the author
Preeta Singhal

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