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Can sleep apnea make you gain weight?

Posted on May 2nd, 2023

Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which a person’s airway becomes fully or partially blocked when they sleep. The blockage causes them to repeatedly stop and start breathing. And the lack of air entering their lungs results in a reduction of oxygen in the blood. This is called hypoxia. And it interrupts the sleep cycle and causes the person to wake up. 

Sleep apnea affects roughly twenty-two million Americans. And if left untreated, sleep apnea can have many negative health consequences, one of which is weight gain. But obesity may also cause sleep apnea, as carrying excess weight around the neck can make a person’s airway structures close. 

Therefore, a cycle is created in which weight gain can lead to sleep apnea, and sleep apnea can cause weight gain. And even though losing weight can resolve sleep apnea symptoms, weight loss is difficult for sleep apnea sufferers due to this cycle. 

How sleep apnea can cause obesity 

Research shows that the shortened sleep cycles resulting from sleep apnea can lead to obesity. Sleep apnea-related weight gain is a complex process involving five main components: 

  1. Fatigue that leads to a lack of motivation to exercise
  2. Increased inflammation in the body 
  3. Glucose intolerance
  4. Insulin resistance 
  5. Hormone imbalances 

People with sleep apnea don’t get enough high-quality sleep at night, which causes excessive daytime fatigue. And when people feel tired, they are less likely to exercise. 

Plus, sleep apnea causes hormonal shifts that affect people’s appetites. Sleep apnea causes a decrease in leptin and an increase in ghrelin, both of which contribute to weight gain when imbalanced. 

Leptin is stored in the body’s fat cells. And leptin lets the brain know when the body is full. But in people with sleep apnea, leptin production is reduced. So the brain doesn’t get the body’s memo about when to stop eating. 

Conversely, the hormone ghrelin stimulates the body’s appetite. Ghrelin is released by the stomach. And it signals to the brain that the body is hungry. When people have sleep apnea and are sleep-deprived, their stomach releases more ghrelin, which increases their appetite.

Other hormones and signaling proteins found in fat cells also affect how the brain works during sleep. These hormones and proteins can weaken the nerves and muscles in the upper airway and chest, making it difficult for the airway to stay open during sleep. This can then cause inflammation, which leads to weight gain and creates a cycle that’s hard to break. 

Losing weight to improve sleep apnea 

Losing weight can improve the symptoms and risks associated with sleep apnea. However, since sleep apnea also causes weight gain, people with sleep apnea often have trouble losing weight. Feeling excessively tired during the day also makes losing weight more difficult. 

But dietary changes and regular exercise can help if people can push through their fatigue. The key is being consistent. Weight loss surgery may also be an option for certain people with sleep apnea. 

The best treatment for sleep apnea that also helps with weight loss is a CPAP machine. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. And a CPAP machine helps keep people’s airways open as they sleep. That way, they don’t repeatedly stop and start breathing. 

Using a CPAP machine also improves the hormone balances that people with sleep apnea experience. And this makes losing weight easier. 

Getting treatment for sleep apnea

If you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor to see if a CPAP machine is right for you. Also, try making lifestyle changes to improve your overall health. These changes include…

  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Getting 30-minutes of moderate exercise a day
  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Not smoking 
  • Sleeping on your side instead of on your back or stomach

Dr. Meghna Dassani has practiced dentistry for over two decades and is passionate about the role dentists play in whole-body health. You can learn more at her website:

Airway Is Life:

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