Obesity has a widespread presence, with about 650 million adults found to be obese in 2016.1 It is one of the major factors contributing to sleep apnoea, a global issue for which awareness is on the rise.2 This article will help you understand how sleep apnoea can affect your life, the role of obesity in sleep apnoea and the available treatment options for sleep apnoea.
What is sleep apnoea?
‘Apnoea’ originated from the Greek word ‘apnoia’, meaning ‘without breath’.3,4 Sleep apnoea is a condition in which your breathing is interrupted for a few seconds to minutes, multiple times during sleep. In people without sleep apnoea, fewer than five pauses in breathing are seen per hour. However, in sleep apnoea, interruptions occur more than five times every hour. In extreme cases, the count may be as high as 100 times per hour. In some cases, you may make a loud snort or choking sound when you breathe again after the interruption.4
There are two types of sleep apnoea:4
- Central sleep apnoea: It is less common and occurs due to the failure of the brain to control our respiratory muscles during sleep.
- Obstructive sleep apnoea: This is the most common type of sleep apnoea in which the tissues of the throat collapse, blocking off the airway. It is associated mainly with obesity.
Sleep apnoea is also categorized by its severity, based on the number of interruptions in breathing per hour:5
- Normal sleep – less than 5 interruptions
- Mild sleep apnoea – 5 to 15 interruptions
- Moderate sleep apnoea – 15 to 30 interruptions
- Severe sleep apnoea – more than 30 interruptions
The role of obesity in obstructive sleep apnoea2
Obesity is one of the leading factors that contribute to sleep apnoea. In obese people, fat is deposited in the respiratory tract, resulting in a narrow airway. A decrease in the activity of the respiratory muscles in this region is observed, which leads to apnoeic episodes and reduced oxygen intake, ultimately causing obstructive sleep apnoea. The reduced oxygen intake due to difficulty in breathing decreases oxygen supply to the tissues. Decreased oxygenation, in the long term, leads to heart-related ailments.
How will sleep apnoea affect my life?
In adults over 30 years of age, this condition is three times more common in men than in women.5
Chronic snoring is highly indicative of sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea leads to disturbed sleep and low levels of oxygen in the blood, which may affect your day-to-day functioning due to symptoms such as:6
- Mood and memory problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sexual dysfunction
If left untreated, sleep apnoea may also lead to high blood pressure and heart ailments like heart attack and congestive heart failure.6
Due to broken sleep, you may feel sleepy during the day or while at work, which may affect your productivity. It also increases the risk of motor vehicle accidents.6
If you think you have sleep apnoea, talk to your healthcare professional immediately to seek timely treatment.6
What are the treatment options for sleep apnoea?
Weight gain is typically caused due to lifestyle factors such as sedentary lifestyle, excessive caloric intake and lack of sleep.2 Thus, the first line of treatment involves making a change to your lifestyle to decrease the severity of sleep apnoea:5,6
- Your primary aim should be to lose any extra weight.
- Do not drink alcohol as it may cause night-time awakenings. It may also relax your respiratory muscles, causing apnoeic episodes.
- Stop smoking as it worsens the swelling in the upper part of your respiratory tract.
The gold standard of treatment for sleep apnoea is what is called a continuous positive pressure (CPAP) device, a mask placed over your nose and/or mouth that gently blows air into the obstructed airway to keep it open during sleep.2,6
One crucial point that every person with obesity and suffering from sleep apnoea should remember is — CPAP can only manage sleep apnoea, but losing weight can help cure it.6
- World Health Organization. Obesity and overweight [Internet]. [cited 2019 Nov 26]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight.
- Jehan S, Zizi F, Pandi-Perumal SR, Wall S, Auguste E, Myers AK, et al. Obstructive sleep apnea and obesity: Implications for public health. Sleep Med Disord. 2017;1(4):00019.
- Collins Dictionary. Definition of apnea [Internet]. [cited 2019 Nov 26]. Available from: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/apnea.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Always tired? You may have sleep apnea [Internet]. [updated 2016 Apr 3; cited 2019 Nov 26]. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/always-tired-you-may-have-sleep-apnea.
- BetterHealth Channel. Sleep apnoea [Internet]. [updated 2019 Feb; cited 2019 Nov 26]. Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sleep-apnoea.
- National Sleep Foundation. Sleep apnea [Internet]. [cited 2019 Nov 26]. Available from: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-apnea.