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Why Losing Weight Could Help Your Sleep Apnoea

Why Losing Weight Could Help Your Sleep Apnoea Why Losing Weight Could Help Your Sleep Apnoea

Obesity has been linked to sleep apnoea for some time, but new research points to a link between tongue fat and the sleep disorder.

Obesity is acknowledged as a major contributing factor for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), which left untreated can lead to serious health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. 

This new research highlighting the significant role a fat tongue plays has the potential for a new therapeutic approach to the disorder.

Studying the Role of Fat in Sleep Apnoea

Previously the focus when looking at the link between weight and sleep apnoea centred on someone having a fat neck. This could well change following a recent study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Involving 67 patients suffering with mild to severe degrees of OSA, MRI scans were taken of their throats and abdomens before and after a 6-month period of weight loss. 

While the patients showed an overall 31% improvement in their sleep apnoea condition, the researchers looked closer at their findings to see where the main benefits arose. They looked at the changes in overall weight, comparing it to changes in the upper airways. 

The researchers concluded the reduction in tongue fat was the most significant factor in reducing a patient’s OSA symptoms such as heavy snoring. 

Other muscles, including those on the side of the airways and in the jaw, also saw a reduction in size from the weight loss. However, they did not have as significant an impact in relieving a sufferer’s sleep apnoea symptoms as the reduction in tongue fat. 

This research backs up and offers fresh insight in to a previous study in 2014 which showed those who were obese and suffered with sleep apnoea had larger tongues compared to people who did not have the sleep disorder.

The Significance of this Research

Going forward, this research could offer new ways of looking for sleep apnoea and in reducing the symptoms. 

The researchers are now keen to see if there is a specific low-fat diet which can aid in tongue fat reduction. Another channel of research could be in to whether the cold therapies currently used to break down stomach fat using freezing temperatures could be applied in some way to tongue fat. As it stands, to reduce the size of the tongue you need to lose weight overall.

Mouth & Tongue Exercises

This new research in to the role of the tongue and sleep apnoea also backs up a previously acknowledged way to ease symptoms of sleep apnoea such as snoring. 

In 2006 the British Medical Journal published the results of a study which concluded playing a wind instrument such as the didgeridoo strengthens the throat muscles and over time reduces the symptoms of sleep apnoea. 

For those who may not have a didgeridoo to hand, other mouth and tongue exercises to strengthen the muscles could also be beneficial. These are straightforward exercises which are easy to do, such as pushing the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth before sliding the tongue back. 

This can be done as 20 repetitions alongside one or two similar exercises, which you could discuss with your doctor.

Lifestyle Changes to Combat Sleep Apnoea

Obesity increases the risk of sleep apnoea and weight loss remains important in reducing the symptoms of the disorder, allowing you to get good nights of restorative sleep. Weight loss will also reduce tongue fat. 

Recommended treatment plans for sleep apnoea once diagnosed will depend on the degree of severity of an individual’s sleep disorder. These can include oral appliance devices worn over night to keep the airways open or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy which uses a device to supply a stream of air via a mask as you sleep. 

However, as being overweight is often a contributing factor your sleep doctor will likely recommend lifestyle changes to reduce weight along side any other treatment course. This will include eating a healthier, more nutritional diet, exercising more, as well as reducing your alcohol consumption and quitting smoking. 

Other changes which can help include sleeping on your side as gravity can pull the muscles down in to the throat when sleeping on your back. Ensure the bedroom is optimised for sleep, including removing screens and making the room dark and going to bed only when you are tired. These are all modifications which can help you sleep and along with lifestyle changes can help you manage and even reduce your sleep apnoea symptoms.

The Bottom Line

More research is required, but this new study sheds more light on just why weight may play a pivotal role in the disorder and how addressing tongue fat could help reduce the symptoms.

Author: Jenny Hall

About author: Jenny Hall is a clinical manager at Baywater Healthcare. She has extensive specialist clinical experience from Regional Nurse Adviser through to Senior Nurse Adviser, Service Lead and Contract Manager. She has provided leadership for the Regional Nurse Advisers ensuring best practice, implementation of National Guidance and Clinical Governance. Ms. Hall has worked with Baywater Healthcare since 2013, with leadership responsibility in delivering Home Oxygen and Long-Term Conditions services. Her clinical team focuses on delivering services closer to home which offer the NHS value with optimum clinical outcomes. Previously, Ms. Hall provided leadership to Regional Nurse Advisors with Air Products, a company providing home oxygen services to Wales, East Midlands and North London. She has served as a Senior COPD National Trainer and Nurse Adviser COPD Response with Innovex, ensuring highest competencies were maintained and best practices delivered. Ms. Hall has a Ba Honours Degree as a Registered General Nurse from Oxford Brookes University and MSc Health Studies from Staffordshire University. She completed Respiratory Education and Training Courses and the Edinburgh Sleep Course. Jenny Hall’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jenny-hall-34331b60/

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