For sleep apnea, cut back on junk food and alcohol, research shows

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Every night, millions of people are sleep deprived due to obstructive sleep apnea, a chronic disease that causes periodic interruptions in nighttime breathing.

But a growing body of research is showing that improving your eating habits by cutting out ultra-processed foods, reducing alcohol and increasing your daily steps can reduce and potentially even eliminate sleep apnea symptoms.

The findings are significant because sleep apnea is one of the most common causes of poor sleep, affecting an estimated 1 in 5 people worldwide. This condition occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax and block your airway while you sleep, causing you to stop breathing. These episodes of apnea can last for more than 10 seconds and can occur multiple times during the night, leading to panting, snoring, and frequent, sudden awakenings as your body struggles for air.

Sleep apnea can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease due to the strain it puts on your body.

Obesity is a particularly strong risk factor because excess tissue in the mouth and throat can block your airway at night. But new research shows that lifestyle and dietary changes can reduce sleep apnea, even if you don’t lose weight.

In a recent study published in JAMA Network Open, researchers in Spain recruited 89 overweight and obese men with moderate to severe sleep apnea and divided them into two groups. One underwent a simple diet, exercise, and lifestyle intervention. Participants were advised to eat healthier whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, olive oil, seafood, poultry, eggs and herbs. They were also encouraged to avoid highly processed foods, processed meats, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages.

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“It wasn’t a restrictive, low-calorie diet,” said Almudena Carneiro-Barrera, lead author of the study and a researcher at Loyola University in Andalusia, Spain. “We taught them about healthy eating.”

Participants were encouraged to reduce their nightly alcohol consumption and smokers were asked to quit. They were also advised to increase their daily step count by 15 percent per week.

Meanwhile, the second group of participants served as the control group: They did not receive lifestyle interventions.

Participants in both groups used a medical device called a CPAP machine, which delivers a gentle and steady stream of compressed air through a tube and a mask that users wear while they sleep. CPAP is the standard treatment for sleep apnea. It prevents episodes of apnea, but it can be bothersome and many people stop using it or struggle to keep it on at night.

After just eight weeks, the group that had adopted healthier habits had a 51 percent reduction in the number of apnea episodes they experienced per hour of sleep per night. About 15 percent were completely free of sleep apnea, and 45 percent no longer needed CPAP devices.

On average, the healthy habits group lost about 16 pounds—roughly 7 percent of their body weight. They maintained weight loss for up to six months, and the number of participants whose sleep apnea went into remission more than doubled. Roughly 62 percent no longer needed CPAP devices.

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They also experienced significant drops in blood pressure, which, according to the researchers, lowered their risk of dying from stroke or heart disease by more than 30 percent.

By comparison, the control group lost an average of less than one pound of body weight and had little or no improvement in the severity of their sleep apnea.

“The results were much better than we expected,” said Carneiro-Barrera. He and his colleagues are now recruiting 500 women with sleep apnea for a larger follow-up study.

Improvements without weight loss

Carneiro-Barrera noted that even people who didn’t lose much weight on the lifestyle program saw a reduction in the severity of their sleep apnea.

There could be many reasons for this. Sleep apnea has been associated with chronically high levels of inflammation. A healthy diet and physical activity can reduce the amount of inflammatory substances circulating in your blood, said Susan Redline, a senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, who studies diet and its connection with sleep. Sleep apnea

Research shows that different diets can work. In a recent study, a group of overweight men and women improved their sleep apnea and experienced less insomnia and daytime sleepiness by following a Mediterranean diet rich in fish, whole grains, herbs, and foods high in unsaturated fat. The study found that participants experienced improvements in their sleep apnea regardless of whether they lost weight.

A randomized study published in July showed that a paleo diet rich in lean meats, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, avocados and olive oil helped a group of overweight women lose weight and reduce the severity of sleep apnea. The diet they followed restricted dairy products, grains and foods with added salt or sugar, and refined oils such as corn and soybean oil.

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Reducing how much alcohol you drink in the evening can improve your sleep because alcohol reduces muscle tone in your throat and increases the chance of your airway closing while you sleep. One meta-analysis found that high alcohol consumption increased the risk of sleep apnea by 25 percent.

Research shows that regular exercise can also relieve sleep apnea symptoms because it prevents fluid from accumulating in your neck and narrowing your airway at night.

So how do you know if you have sleep apnea? Loud snoring, sudden awakenings at night, and waking up in the morning with a dry mouth, sore throat or headache are some of the symptoms. If you have a bedmate, they may notice you gasping or choking in your sleep. Fatigue, irritability, and daytime sleepiness are also common symptoms.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, consult a doctor or sleep medicine specialist. They can schedule you for a sleep test that can be done at home or in the lab. “Unfortunately, untreated sleep apnea is very common in the population,” Redline said.

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