If you’re looking to treat sleep apnea, a plant-based diet significantly reduces symptoms and the risk of developing closely related diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Rising at an alarming rate, between 1993 and 2010 survey reports of a diagnosis of sleep apnea increased 14.6- fold, from 420,000 to 6.37 million per year 2.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) affects 17% of women and 34% of men in the US 1.
Increases the risk of daytime sleepiness, cognitive dysfunction, poor work performance, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, heart disease, and risk of early death.
Dr Laurie Marbas, who has seen the power of lifestyle medicine to treat sleep apnea first-hand.
Read this success story on the Forks Over Knives website of a man who was able to resolve his sleep apnea by eating more plants, whole grains, and legumes and increasing his physical activity. With diet and lifestyle changes he was able to overcome his sleep apnea.
What You Eat Could Affect Your Sleep: Dietary Findings in Patients With Newly Diagnosed Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Researchers monitored the dietary habits of over 100 patients with obstructive sleep apnea. They discovered that those who consumed high fat diets had twice the severity of sleep apnea. Patients who ate more processed meat and greater than 2 servings of dairy daily also had a significantly worsened severity of sleep apnea 3.
Weight loss from lifestyle interventions and severity of sleep apnoea: a systematic review and meta-analysis
This study combined the results of 10 separate studies looking at lifestyle interventions, including diet and exercise modifications, to reduce the severity of sleep apnea. All study results were in favor of the lifestyle interventions for treating sleep apnea, with significant weight loss and reduction in sleep apnea severity across the trials. The average difference in weight loss in the lifestyle interventions groups was -13.76kg compared to the control groups. The average difference in the change in apnoea -hypopnoea index (AHI) was -16.09 for the lifestyle intervention groups compared to the control groups 4.
The effectiveness of a weight-loss Mediterranean diet/lifestyle intervention in the management of obstructive sleep apnea: Results of the “MIMOSA” randomized clinical trial
A mediterranean diet is a plant-forward diet that focuses on whole plant foods and minimal animal products. This study tested 6-month mediterranean diet and mediterranean lifestyle interventions compared to a control. The intervention focused on behavioral change, weight loss, and increasing adherence to the Mediterranean diet; the lifestyle group also received counseling on physical activity and sleep habits. The interventions significantly reduced sleep apnea severity, daytime sleepiness, and insomnia. The lifestyle intervention had a higher percent of rapid-eye movement sleep and lower daytime sleepiness compared to the diet-only group, suggesting further benefits to sleep quality when exercise and better sleep habits are also included, and both are better than standard care alone 5.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder where the muscles in your throat repetitively relax causing collapse of the airway during sleep 6. This causes your airway to narrow or close as you breathe, disrupting your breathing. Your brain detects the low level of oxygen in your blood as a result, which shocks you briefly awake so you can reopen your airways.
This can repeat itself 5 to 30 times or more during the night meaning individuals with obstructive sleep apnea are not able to sleep soundly nor deeply throughout the night like a normal individual would 7.
This lack of sleep means sleep apnea is a risk factor for developing chronic health conditions including chronic daytime sleepiness, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, impotence, and heart disease 7.
Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include those that would be reported by another person:
And symptoms you can recognise yourself, including:
In order for a physician to diagnose you with sleep apnea, they may start with a sleep-orientated history alongside your signs and symptoms 9.
From there, sleep-center tests and at-home sleep tests are both options to monitor your breathing and body functions during sleep. These tests can measure your heart rate, breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels, airflow, and arm and leg movements to determine if any of these are abnormal, which may then be diagnosed as obstructive sleep apnea.
Diet and lifestyle changes can treat and manage sleep apnea.
One of the biggest risk factors for sleep apnea is being overweight or obese, as fat deposits around your upper airway can obstruct your breathing. Therefore, it is possible to treat some cases of sleep apnea with weight loss; even a mere 10%-15% loss in body weight results in a 30%-50% reduction in sleep apnea severity 10. The science is clear that a plant-based diet, along with exercise, sleep, and stress management is the best way to prevent being overweight or obese, and to treat pre-existing obesity 11. This can massively control the risk of developing sleep apnea, and treat individuals already suffering with the condition.
High fat diets, processed meat intake, and dairy intake are all associated with worse severity of sleep apnea 3. On the other hand, evidence looking at a plant based diet and sleep apnea shows they can significantly reduce its severity. Plant-based diets limit or exclude processed foods and dairy intake and replaces it with healthy, filling alternatives that can support better sleep. Plant based diets are also naturally low in fat and calorie density, which aid weight loss.
Studies suggest that standard care, including simple advice for a healthier lifestyle, is not enough to support patients suffering with sleep apnea. Daytime sleepiness caused by sleep apnea increases chronic fatigue which makes it harder to motivate yourself to exercise. Sleep deprivation can also lead to overeating. Lack of sleep also increases levels of the hunger-hormone ghrelin, and lowers levels of the satiety-inducing hormone leptin leading to increased hunger and appetite–especially for foods rich in fat and sugar 12. This can be a vicious cycle for an individual with sleep apnea that is trying to lose weight.
Regular support and coaching from a health professional on how to make and implement healthy diet and lifestyle changes can make a big positive difference for their use in treating obstructive sleep apnea 5.
Our physicians can support you in creating the best sleep apnea diet and exercise plan to suit your individual needs. This includes the best foods for sleep apnea as part of an overall lifestyle intervention to get your health back on track.
Think you may be suffering with this and need support? Join us today to make a change.
1. Gottlieb, D. J. & Punjabi, N. M. Diagnosis and Management of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Review. JAMA 323, 1389 (2020).
2. Namen, A. M., Chatterjee, A., Huang, K. E., Feldman, S. R. & Haponik, E. F. Recognition of Sleep Apnea Is Increasing. Analysis of Trends in Two Large, Representative Databases of Outpatient Practice. Ann. Am. Thorac. Soc. 13, 2027–2034 (2016).
3. Bove, C., Jain, V., Younes, N. & Hynes, M. What You Eat Could Affect Your Sleep: Dietary Findings in Patients With Newly Diagnosed Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Am. J. Lifestyle Med. 15, 305–312 (2021).
4. Mitchell, L. J. et al. Weight loss from lifestyle interventions and severity of sleep apnoea: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med. 15, 1173–1183 (2014).
5. Georgoulis, M. et al. The effectiveness of a weight-loss Mediterranean diet/lifestyle intervention in the management of obstructive sleep apnea: Results of the “MIMOSA” randomized clinical trial. Clin. Nutr. 40, 850–859 (2021).
6. White, D. P. Sleep Apnea. Proc. Am. Thorac. Soc. 3, 124–128 (2006).
7. Slowik, J. M., Sankari, A. & Collen, J. F. Obstructive Sleep Apnea. in StatPearls (StatPearls Publishing, 2022).
8. Schwab, R. J. UPPER AIRWAY IMAGING. Clin. Chest Med. 19, 33–54 (1998).
9. Epstein, L. J. et al. Clinical guideline for the evaluation, management and long-term care of obstructive sleep apnea in adults. J. Clin. Sleep Med. JCSM Off. Publ. Am. Acad. Sleep Med. 5, 263–276 (2009).
10. Schwartz, A. R. et al. Obesity and obstructive sleep apnea: pathogenic mechanisms and therapeutic approaches. Proc. Am. Thorac. Soc. 5, 185–192 (2008).
11. Turner-McGrievy, G. M., Davidson, C. R., Wingard, E. E., Wilcox, S. & Frongillo, E. A. Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss: A randomized controlled trial of five different diets. Nutrition 31, 350–358 (2015).
12. Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P. & Cauter, E. V. Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite. Ann. Intern. Med. 141, 846 (2004).
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