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Obesity and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a chronic disorder in which breathing slows or stops repeatedly throughout the night for brief periods. This is a serious health condition that affects healthy sleeping patterns, stresses the heart and may lead to weight gain as a result of chronic fatigue. Sleep apnea is the leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness in adults.

Normal Airway Without Sleep Apnea

In a healthy individual, air travels freely through the airway into the lungs.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

In the case of obstructive sleep apnea, enlarged tissue blocks the air passageway, disrupting breathing patterns.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is most commonly diagnosed among overweight adults. It develops when excess fat tissue in the neck partially blocks the airway, most often as a result of neck muscles relaxing during sleep. This causes the airway to become narrowed, preventing air from properly flowing into the lungs.

When breathing is obstructed, the level of oxygen in the blood sharply declines and your brain is alerted that you are unable to breathe. This causes you to rouse from sleep though usually not completely. As you begin to wake, the airways open and you’re once again able to catch your breath—often making a series of loud choking or gasping sounds in the process.

Many people who have sleep apnea do not realize their sleep is constantly disrupted in this way. Instead, it is often a loved one who brings attention to the chronic loud snoring that commonly accompanies sleep apnea.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring, interrupted by period gasping or choking sounds
  • Periods of stopped breathing during the night
  • Morning headaches
  • Insomnia (especially in staying asleep)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

If sleep apnea is suspected after a review of your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may request that you complete a sleep study. This is an overnight evaluation in which your breathing is closely monitored as you sleep.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea

The most common method of treatment for sleep apnea is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP device. This machine sits next to your bed and gently delivers a continuous stream of air to your lungs through a mask worn over the mouth and nose. The pressure is just enough to keep the airway open, allowing you to sleep soundly and reduce snoring.

Mouth pieces and implants are sometimes recommended to control sleep apnea, as well. In severe cases, surgery may be recommended to remove obstructions in the airway.

As is true with many obesity related diseases, sleep apnea generally improves with weight loss. Making healthy changes to your diet, exercising regularly and making an effort to lose weight may improve your ability to sleep and may lessen the severity of sleep apnea.

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