Can Weight Loss Cure Sleep Apnea?

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
January 24, 2023

Key takeaways

  • Sleep apnea is a common condition in which your breathing stops and restarts during sleep.

  • Excess weight is a well-known cause of sleep apnea, especially obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). 

  • Weight loss can improve sleep apnea and even cure the condition in some.

Sleep apnea is a common condition that affects your breathing while you sleep. It causes your breathing to stop and restart during sleep, preventing your body from getting sufficient oxygen. Over time, this condition can lead to daytime fatigue, trouble concentrating, and other behavioral changes.

There are several possible causes of sleep apnea, including certain medical conditions. Diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, and genetics can all play a role. However, excess weight is a common cause of sleep apnea.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 60-90% of adults with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are overweight. Research suggests that overweight people with sleep apnea can improve their symptoms through weight loss.

This article explains the connection between sleep apnea and weight. It also covers how weight loss and other lifestyle changes can help improve sleep apnea.

Can Weight Loss Cure Sleep Apnea?

Anyone can get sleep apnea, but having excess body weight can significantly increase your risk of developing the condition. Being overweight can cause fat deposits to accumulate in the neck—called pharyngeal fat—which can block airflow, causing obstructive sleep apnea.

Research also suggests that excess abdominal fat can decrease lung volume and diminish airflow, obstructing the airways during sleep. 

Studies show that weight loss can help treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in people with overweight and obesity. In these individuals, weight loss can reduce pharyngeal and abdominal fat, which can improve airflow during sleep.

Though a small proportion of people with overweight and obesity can cure their sleep apnea with weight loss, it’s important to note that weight loss on its own doesn’t usually lead to a complete cure of the condition. 

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What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common condition in which a person’s breathing stops and restarts several times while sleeping. Some people with sleep apnea may even wake up with the sensation of choking or gasping for air several times throughout the night.

There are two main types of sleep apnea: 

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea and occurs when the upper airway becomes blocked. 
  1. Central sleep apnea: Central sleep apnea is less common than OSA and occurs when the brain doesn’t send the right signals to your airway and chest muscles required to breathe. 

A third type of sleep apnea, called complex sleep apnea, describes when a person has a combination of OSA and central sleep apnea. 

Symptoms

There are several possible symptoms of sleep apnea, including: 

  • Loud, chronic snoring that can occur every night
  • Choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep
  • Pauses in your breathing
  • Feeling short of breath after waking
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, regardless of how long you were in bed
  • Waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat, or headache
  • Restless or fitful sleep
  • Insomnia or nighttime awakenings
  • Trouble learning, focusing, and reacting
  • Forgetfulness during the day
  • Uncharacteristic moodiness, irritability, or depression
  • Morning headaches
  • Nighttime sweating
  • Decreased libido or sexual dysfunction
  • Waking up frequently during the night to urinate 

Keep in mind that many of the main symptoms of sleep apnea, including loud snoring or pauses in breathing, may be more noticeable to your partner than to you. 

Treatment

If you think you may have sleep apnea, it’s important to speak with a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment options. Treatment options for sleep apnea include:

  • Healthy lifestyle changes: Certain lifestyle changes can help improve and treat sleep apnea, including maintaining a healthy weight. 
  • CPAP machine: Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines are the most common treatments for sleep apnea. They help open up blocked airways and provide constant air pressure to prevent breathing disruptions in your sleep.
  • Oral devices: Oral devices you wear during sleep can also help open up blocked airways. Examples of these devices include mandibular repositioning mouthpieces and tongue-retaining devices. 
  • Orofacial therapy: Orofacial therapy can help strengthen the muscles in your face, including the muscles around your lips, tongue, and upper airway, to improve the symptoms of sleep apnea. 
  • Surgery: Surgical procedures are also used to treat sleep apnea, but these procedures are only used when previous therapies have failed.

Types of Surgery

Possible surgeries for sleep apnea include:

  • Adenotonsillectomy: used to remove your tonsils and adenoids.
  • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP): used to remove soft tissue from the back of your mouth and top of the throat. 
  • Hypoglossal nerve stimulator: a surgical implant that monitors your breathing patterns and controls upper airway muscles during sleep.
  • Maxillomandibular or jaw advancement: alters your jaw placement to help increase the upper airway size.

Causes

OSA is caused by conditions that block the upper airways during sleep. Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain not sending the correct signals to your airway and chest muscles to help you breathe.

A combination of both causes can cause complex sleep apnea. Though anyone can get sleep apnea, some factors can increase your risk of developing the condition. These factors include:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • Age (older individuals are at higher risk)
  • Family history of the condition
  • Heart or kidney failure
  • Other medical conditions, like diabetes and thyroid dysfunction
  • Large tonsils
  • A thick neck
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Opioid use
  • Gender (sleep apnea is more common in men)

How Are Weight and Sleep Apnea Connected?

Weight gain and having overweight or obesity are risk factors for sleep apnea. These people are more likely to have excess pharyngeal and abdominal fat that can negatively affect airflow during sleep.

However, sleep apnea can also increase the risk of gaining weight. Those with sleep apnea experience breathing disturbances during sleep, leading to poor sleep quality. Over time, lack of quality sleep can lead to weight gain and overeating.

For these reasons, the relationship between excess weight and sleep apnea can be considered bidirectional, meaning each one can influence and contribute to the development of the other. 

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Sleep Apnea

Several lifestyle changes can help to treat sleep apnea, including maintaining a healthy weight. Other lifestyle changes that can improve sleep apnea include:

  • Getting regular physical exercise
  • Eating a balanced, healthy diet
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Quitting smoking
  • Avoiding sleeping on your back

Will Sleep Apnea Treatment Help With Weight Loss?

Because of the relationship between sleep apnea and being overweight and obese, sleep apnea treatment can help some people maintain their weight. In some cases, sleep apnea treatment may make it easier for some individuals to lose weight. However, one meta-analysis found a link between CPAP treatment and weight gain.

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Healthy Ways to Lose Weight

Healthy weight loss is unique to each body. Losing weight sustainably can involve multiple strategies, and what works for one person may not work for you. If you’re interested in losing weight to improve your sleep apnea, reach out to a healthcare provider for their recommendations.

Many of the strategies that can help you lose weight can also benefit sleep apnea, including:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Eating a healthy and balanced diet
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol intake

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Frequently Asked Questions

How much weight do I have to lose to cure sleep apnea?
Weight loss can help improve sleep apnea in people with overweight and obesity. However, weight loss on its own doesn’t usually lead to a complete cure. To understand how much weight loss is best, speak with a healthcare professional who can give you personalized recommendations based on your health history and weight.
Can losing 20 pounds help sleep apnea?
For people with overweight and obesity, losing weight can help improve sleep apnea—though it’s rare for weight loss alone to cure the condition. In many cases, losing twenty pounds will benefit your sleep apnea if you have overweight or obesity. Regardless of how many pounds you lose, it’s important to ensure your weight loss is healthy and sustainable. In many cases, rapid weight loss followed by weight regain can be more detrimental to your long-term health. To learn more about healthy and sustainable weight loss strategies, consult a healthcare provider for guidance.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.

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Chesney Fowler