Obesity Effects Sleep Apnea

Disturbed sleep and obesity interact in complex ways. Effects of obesity include an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder caused by temporary interruptions in breathing while asleep. According to the Duke University Health System (2010), 40 percent of obese individuals suffer from this sleep disorder. Obesity may also be worsened by obstructive sleep apnea.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airways become blocked during sleep. The airway collapses, partially rousing the sleeper. The airway may be blocked by fat tissue in the neck, large tonsils or the tongue, all of which can press on the throat muscles, which relax during sleep.

Obesity and Sleep Apnea - Effects of Obesity

Obstructive sleep apnea can block the airways multiple times a night, but the sleeper is usually unaware of this. In addition to disrupting sleep, sleep apnea can also cause:

  • Dangerously low oxygen levels
  • Heart rhythm irregularities
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart disease.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Daytime fatigue is the primary symptom of obstructive sleep apnea. Sufferers may fall asleep at any time: while reading, watching television, riding in cars or during other activities. Left untreated, sleep apnea may even cause falling asleep at the wheel, which can be potentially disastrous.

In addition to fatigue, sleep apnea often causes loud snoring due to airway obstructions, as well as morning headaches. People with untreated sleep apnea may experience irritability and impaired mental function because of sleep disruptions.

Sleep and Obesity

As common effects of obesity, sleep apnea and hypertension often occur together. Obesity can cause obstructive sleep apnea by increasing fat tissue around the airway, while sleep apnea tends to cause weight gain. Sleep deprivation interferes with hormones related to appetite and satiety, so without treatment, sleep apnea sufferers may eat more than normal.

The risk of developing sleep apnea increases with neck circumference, perhaps explaining why obesity causes sleep apnea. A man with a neck circumference of 17 or more inches is more likely to have sleep apnea than other men. For women, a circumference of 16 inches or more contributes to sleep apnea. Muscular necks increase this risk as much as fat deposits. For instance, NFL linesmen have high rates of sleep apnea.

Like obesity, sleep apnea may cause high blood pressure. Exactly how sleep apnea causes hypertension is unclear, although a correlation between the two exists.

Obesity, Sleep Disorders and Treatment

Losing weight is an effective sleep apnea treatment. A loss of 10 percent of total body weight may decrease sleep apnea symptoms. Doctors can treat sleep apnea with the use of a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to deliver a steady stream of air into the patient’s airways during sleep, preventing them from collapsing.

Successful treatment of sleep apnea often results in weight loss, as proper sleep patterns restore the hormonal imbalances caused by the condition.


Duke University Health System. (2010). How obesity affects your health. Retrieved July 27, 2010, from http://www.dukehealth.org/services/weight_loss_surgery/care_guides/treatment_instructions/how_obesity_affects_your_health.

Heit, J. (n.d.). Obesity and sleep apnea: What’s the connection? Retrieved June 8, 2010, from http://www.healthcentral.com/obesity/c/45116/38444/obesity-connection.

National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Obesity and sleep. Retrieved June 8, 2010, from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/obesity-and-sleep.

University of Maryland Medical Center. (2009). Obstructive sleep apnea: Symptoms. Retrieved June 8, 2010, from http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/how_serious_sleep_apnea_000065_5.htm.

Wolk, R., Shamsuzzaman, A.