Of the 12 million Americans with sleep apnea, over half are overweight. Sleep apnea involves chronically shallow, irregular, or stopped breathing and periodic snoring during sleep. Sleep apnea may be obstructive (when weak throat muscles hinder breathing) or, in rarer cases, central (when the brain fails to signal respiratory muscles).
Although thinner individuals can develop sleep apnea, this condition is most common among people with large neck circumferences (over 17 inches for men and over 16 inches for women). Over half of those with obstructive sleep apnea are overweight or obese, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25-29.9 or 30.0 and above, respectively. This is partially because excess weight can form fatty deposits around your upper airway. In addition to creating other problems, these deposits may also obstruct breathing and elevate your risk of cardiovascular complications.
The correlation between excess weight and sleep apnea also works the other way: sleep apnea increases your risk of becoming overweight or obese. Sleep apnea leads to sleep deprivation, which often prompts people to eat more. This is likely due to the relationship between hunger and satiety hormones (leptin and ghrelin) and sleep deprivation, although researchers are not yet certain about the nature of this relationship. To make matters worse, people with sleep apnea often have high blood pressure, high fasting glucose, and high cholesterol. When hunger and satiety hormones are not operating effectively, it is much easier to overeat and gain even more weight. This can aggravate the effects of sleep apnea, worsening hormonal disturbance and eating habits and prompting further weight gain.
The vicious cycle of obesity and sleep apnea can worsen if these disorders are left untreated. If you suffer from sleep apnea, and especially if you are overweight or obese, speak to your doctor to determine the best lifestyle changes, surgical procedures, and treatments for your symptoms.