Simple Steps Could Cure Sleep Apnea

30% of study participants saw condition resolve after lifestyle changes
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 15, 2022 1:28 PM CST
Updated Nov 19, 2022 4:05 PM CST
Simple Steps Could Cure Sleep Apnea
Increasing exercise, cutting back on alcohol seems to help.   (Getty Images/Perboge)

Obstructive sleep apnea is as common as a sexually transmitted disease, affecting about 1 in 5 people. But unlike with STDs, the fix could be as easy as changing one's diet. In a study out of Spain, 89 overweight and obese men with moderate to severe sleep apnea—a condition in which throat muscles relax and block the airway during sleep, causing a person to temporarily stop breathing—were split into two groups. One carried on with their usual habits. The other was instructed to eat a healthy diet of whole foods, increase their daily step count by 15%, reduce nightly alcohol intake, and avoid smoking. "The results were far better than we expected," Almudena Carneiro-Barrera of Loyola University Andalusia, lead author of the study published in JAMA Network Open, tells the Washington Post.

After eight weeks, the control group saw little to no improvement. The other group, however, saw a 51% reduction in apnea episodes per hour of sleep and 45% no longer required CPAP machines, which limit apnea episodes by delivering a continual flow of pressurized air. That figure increased to 62% after six months. What's more, 15% of participants in this group saw their sleep apnea resolve completely after eight weeks—a figure that increased to 30% after six months. They also lost 16 pounds on average. Sufferers are often encouraged to lose weight because sleep apnea is exacerbated by excess tissue in the mouth and throat. But researchers say even those participants who didn't lose weight experienced benefits, including lower blood pressure.

As the Post explains, sleep apnea is linked to inflammation, which is countered by a healthy diet and physical activity. Because "alcohol reduces muscle tone in your throat, making your airway more likely to collapse as you sleep," cutting back is also a good strategy. It also makes sense that blood pressure would be reduced along with sleep apnea episodes. As Healthline notes, these episodes may prevent blood pressure from dipping to its lowest level during sleep. Instead, with a blocked airway, blood pressure spikes accompany the release of stress hormones. To investigate whether the changes also apply to women, Carneiro-Barrera says she and her colleagues are now recruiting 500 participants for a larger, female-focused, follow-up study. (More sleep apnea stories.)

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