Sleep apnea: the dramatic benefit of weight loss

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious breathing disorder that is associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease. However, it is possible to reduce the incidence of this respiratory disorder by modifying certain lifestyle habits.

Apnea is a general term used to refer to a cessation of ventilation, whether voluntary (as in apnea diving, i.e. without a tank) or involuntary (for example, a cessation of breathing caused by brain damage). In sleep apnea, this cessation of ventilation is usually caused by an involuntary relaxation of the tongue and the muscles of the throat which cause the obstruction of the airways and thus prevent the passage of air. The brain, extremely dependent on oxygen to function, perceives this situation as a serious threat and sends signals intended to restore breathing.

This respiratory effort causes micro-awakenings, usually unconscious, but easily recognizable by sudden movements or jumps in the sleeping person. When these episodes of micro-awakenings become frequent (5-10 episodes per hour of sleep), people often feel very tired the next day, suffer from headaches and become irritable. Although very often undiagnosed, it is estimated that these obstructive sleep apneas are relatively common, affecting up to 15% of men and 7% of women in their thirties.

Sleep apnea: lack of oxygen in the brain

In addition to influencing the quality of life and mood of sufferers (and those of their spouses), sleep apnea increases the risk of developing a host of cardiovascular diseases. Indeed, each episode of apnea leads to a deficit of oxygenation of the brain (hypoxia) and a defect in the evacuation of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia), which causes fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate, an increase in stress hormones like cortisol as well as the development of inflammatory conditions. In the long term, these disorders are associated with an increased risk of various cardiovascular problems, including hypertension, cerebrovascular accident (CVA), myocardial infarction, heart rhythm disturbances (arrhythmias) and even cardiac insufficiency. cardiac. Sleep apnea is therefore not a benign respiratory disorder, but a condition that can have profound repercussions on the life expectancy of those affected.

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Sleep apnea: a dramatic impact of weight loss

With the exception of certain anatomical factors that predispose to developing sleep apnea (bulky tongue and receding chin, among others), the majority of cases of apnea are caused by lifestyle-derived factors. Among these, overweight, and more particularly obesity, is by far the main cause responsible for obstructive sleep apnea. Studies have shown the existence of a close link between sleep apnea and an increase in body mass index, neck circumference and the presence of excess fat in the abdomen. . Excess fat in the neck appears to be particularly important for the development of sleep apnea, probably by narrowing the caliber of the airways at the gullet and pharynx. These data suggest that people who are overweight or obese could significantly reduce the incidence of sleep apnea simply by adopting lifestyle habits that help restore a healthy weight.

This is exactly what a team of Finnish researchers observed in a study of more than 70 overweight people. They observed that major changes in the lifestyle of these people, i.e. a reduction in calorie intake, combined with an increase in plant intake as well as regular physical activity were associated with a significant drop in body weight (7 kilos on average) two years after the start of the intervention. This weight loss had a dramatic impact on the incidence of sleep apnea in the participants, which was reduced by more than 65%!

Another illustration of the concrete benefits associated with adopting a healthy lifestyle, based on a plant-rich diet and regular physical activity…


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YoungT et al. Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea in adults. JAMA 291:2013-2016.

Tuomilehto H et al. Sustained improvement in mild obstructive sleep apnea after a diet- and physical activity-based lifestyle intervention: postinterventional follow-up. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 92: 688-696.


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