Sleep apnea, episodes of shallow or absent breathing while asleep, is not uncommon. About 1 in 5 adults have it to some degree (a minimum of 5 episodes an hour); most don't know it's occurring.1 If you are overweight, you are likely in that 20% prevalence rate. (About half of people with diabetes experience it.2)
It's serious. The decreased blood oxygen (from inadequate air flow to the lungs) tells your brain to wake you up so you can breathe better. The cycle of falling asleep, disturbed air flow, and waking up, over and over, increases levels of stress hormones that raise heart rate and blood pressure. Hypertension is an almost guaranteed fallout of sleep apnea, as are behavioral problems. Heart disease and other elements of the metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance and blood glucose abnormalities) are also linked.
One of the first studies to examine the diets of people with sleep disordered breathing (SDB), including sleep apnea found:3
"The results indicated that even after adjusting for BMI, age, and daytime sleepiness, subjects with very severe and extremely severe SDB (RDI ≥ 50*) consumed a diet that was higher in cholesterol, protein, total fat, and total saturated fatty acids. These findings were most evident among women."Although obesity is a risk factor for sleep apnea, this study found that - apart from being overweight - a high-fat, high-protein diet led to disordered nighttime breathing. Cholesterol and protein, nutrients typically found in foods of animal origin, were especially strong indicators. Trans fats, total fat, and saturated fat followed close.
*RDI is Respiratory Disturbance Index. Individuals with an RDI ≥ 10 events/hour were considered to have obstructive sleep apnea.
It's hard to know if you have apnea without an outside judge, be it the person who bears witness to the characteristic snoring or a doc. Daytime sleepiness is a giveaway. So is a dry, scratchy throat (from snoring). Irritability, mood swings, and aggression are all related to sleep apnea. So is hunger...
The disturbed sleep increases levels of an appetite-stimulating hormone (ghrelin), and decreases levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone (leptin). It also increases the appetite-stimulating neuropeptide Y. This all leads to food cravings and more eating during the day ... which can lead to weight gain ... which can worsen the apnea.
You don't have to be overweight to have sleep apnea, but if you are, losing weight seems to lessen it. From the looks of this study, eating a lower fat, plant-based diet may also help.
2 Prevalence Of Sleep Apnea In A Population Of Adults With Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, Endocrine Practice, 2007
3 Associations Of Dietary Intake And Physical Activity With Sleep Disordered Breathing In The Apnea Positive Pressure Long-term Efficacy Study (APPLES), Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2008
The man in the photo is wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. It maintains blood oxygen levels by keeping airways open via pressure. You still have to do the breathing. If you use one, I'm curious what you think of it.