The Connection Between Weight and Sleep Apnea


This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—a disorder where blocked airways during sleep lead to disrupted breathing and excessive snoring—affects about 3 to 7 percent of the U.S. population, with older adults more likely to be at risk. A number of factors raise the chance of having sleep apnea, including small airways, nasal congestion, and the use of alcohol or cigarettes. One of the biggest risk factors? Carrying excessive weight. In fact, about half of people with sleep apnea are overweight, leading researchers to explore the relationship between the two conditions.

How Weight Gain Leads to Sleep Apnea

While not everyone who is overweight has sleep apnea, putting on extra pounds does increase the chance of having the disorder. That’s because weight gain can cause fat to accumulate in the neck area, obstructing breathing and leading to sleep apnea. For this reason, weight loss is one of the first lifestyle remedies that doctors recommend when treating OSA: Losing 10 percent of your body weight can significantly improve the condition or even get rid of sleep apnea completely. 

How Sleep Apnea Can Cause Weight Gain

Having sleep apnea can also contribute to gaining pounds, and people with severe OSA have a greater chance of gaining more weight compared to those with less severe OSA. Poor sleep quality influences the production of hormones related to appetite, and also OSA can cause daytime sleepiness, thereby decreasing physical activity. Unfortunately, this can also make it difficult for people with OSA to lose weight.

If you’re overweight or obese and believe you may have sleep apnea, talk with your doctor. He or she can refer you to a sleep specialist, who may prescribe therapy such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This mask-like device is worn throughout the night and uses air pressure to keep airways open, helping to prevent snoring. When left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart trouble, so it’s important to partner with your physician to figure out how to ease the condition.