We all know how rough a night of bad sleep can be. But what about when you consistently wake up feeling tired or fall asleep during the day? There may be something deeper happening that can impact your health and body weight. Before we dive into that, let's explore what quality sleep can do for our health.
Most adults need around 7-8 hours per night of sleep. Good sleep improves mental clarity and mood, improves resiliency towards stress, supports weight management, enhances memory, and potentially improves heart health. If you wake up groggy, in a poor mood, or anything but rested even though you have a solid sleep routine (here’s info on how to build a sleep routine), you may need to get tested for sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a condition that compromises the body's ability to bring in enough oxygen, which stresses your body instead of resting it. According to sleepapnea.org, sleep apnea is:
"...A medical condition where you repeatedly stop and start breathing while you sleep. There are several types of sleep apnea, but by far the most common type is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This type of apnea occurs when your throat muscles intermittently relax to the point of collapse and block your airway during sleep. A noticeable sign of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring."
While you'll need to consult with a doctor for an accurate diagnosis, symptoms include snoring, fatigue (you are sleepy or easily fall asleep in the middle of the day), moodiness, and waking up with a dry mouth or headache. Your partner may notice that you stop breathing at night. Snoring alone isn't indicative of sleep apnea and may or may not be a present feature of it. Further, sleep apnea is graded based on how often the person stops breathing in their sleep. The diagnosis can be mild, moderate, or severe. In severe cases, people stop breathing 30 times or more per hour. Sleep apnea is correlated with other health conditions, such as depression, poor mood management, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It can even cause death. And, recent research shows self-harm and suicide are more common among people who have untreated sleep apnea.
Not only are people with excess weight more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea, it can also make weight problems worse. Excess body fat on the upper body can impact the breathing pathways. Men more commonly store body fat in these areas; however, post-menopausal women can see increases in the upper body due to hormonal changes and aging. Additional body fat or weight can collapse the throat area during sleep. According to John Hopkins, sleep apnea impacts about "three percent of normal-weight individuals but affects over 20 percent of obese people."
Not only are you more likely to experience obstructive sleep apnea if you have excess weight or obesity, it can also make it very difficult to lose weight or even cause weight gain. Lack of restful sleep impacts key hormones that influence appetite. (Read our article on how sleep impacts your weight.) Some studies have shown that patients with sleep apnea have higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, and lower levels of leptin, the hormone that signals fullness. Poor sleep also impacts how your body uses insulin and regulates blood sugar.
So, know this: Improved sleep can lead to or influence a person's ability to lose weight, particularly fat loss, according to the International Journal of Obesity. However, research findings reported that those with obstructive sleep apnea lost weight, but not body fat. In another study, researchers found that participants who had obstructive sleep apnea did not have as much success with weight loss as participants without it. Researchers are still studying the link between sleep apnea and success with weight loss—and it may not just be hormonal but behavioral, too. For example, those who sleep less appear to have a harder time adhering to behavioral recommendations to improve weight management.
If you're concerned you may have sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider right away. Many have take-home testing machines (allowing you to skip a night in an expensive sleep lab). You can also buy at-home sleep apnea test equipment.
Treatment may include a CPAP machine (continuous positive airway pressure machine), a device that keeps the airway open during sleep. John Hopkins notes that the CPAP's magic may be that it delivers oxygen, which turns off the body's stress response, allowing you to get deep, restful sleep. It will also help your body function better. Even though CPAPs aren't sexy, many people who use them say they notice a tremendous difference in how they feel. While it may seem unnatural to use a CPAP, the importance of quality sleep and its impact on health is clear. One study found that using a CPAP machine helped improve ghrelin levels in participants with obstructive sleep apnea, which can help you better care for your weight.
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