Sleep apnea is a debilitating sleep disorder that is very widespread but often goes undiagnosed. Those who are diagnosed often use sleep apnea machines to offset the symptoms, but recent research suggests that maintaining a healthy diet, an active lifestyle and good sleeping habits can also offset the symptoms of this disorder.

What is Sleep Apnea?

According to the American Sleep Association, this disorder is very common, and more than 12 million Americans are estimated to have sleep apnea. People with this disorder stop breathing or have shallow breaths while asleep, with pauses in breath lasting between 10 and 20 seconds. In any given hour of rest, such pauses can happen 20-30 times. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common variety – it's caused by a lack of air flow in through the mouth and nose and, therefore, into the lungs, which causes a drop in the oxygen levels of the blood. This can cause you to be startled out of REM sleep several times, resulting in low-quality rest that doesn't allow your body to properly rejuvenate.

For these reasons, sleep apnea can have severe effects on your daily life and you overall health. If left untreated, it can increase an individual's risk of:

  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke or heart attack
  • Diabetes
  • Work-related and driving accidents caused by weariness

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Those who suffer from sleep apnea are typically obese or overweight, though people of all body types can have it. For some people, the reason that the lungs don't receive enough air is over-relaxation of the throat muscles during sleep, enlarged tonsils or small airways due to petite head and neck shape. People who are overweight tend to have sleep apnea because of the extraneous soft tissue blocking the opening in the throat. This is specifically important to note, because more than 50 percent of people suffering from sleep apnea are overweight and, according to the National Institutes of Health, obesity is the leading cause of obstructive sleep apnea.

What Can Help Relieve Sleep Apnea?

In general, a healthier lifestyle can offset the symptoms of sleep apnea and, in some cases, rid you of the pesky disorder altogether. Since being overweight is the main cause, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests losing weight as the key treatment for sleep apnea. Scientific research also proves that weight loss has great benefits for those diagnosed with this illness. According to a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine in May 2013, improving diet and increasing physical activity has proven to prevent the worsening of sleep apnea. Researchers at the Kuopio Sleep Apnea Group conducted a study on 81 obese adults with mild sleep apnea and found that those who went through one year of low-calorie meals and exercise were significantly less likely to progress to the next stage of sleep apnea.

It may be difficult to stay away from fatty foods when you have sleep apnea, since those who are deprived of quality sleep tend to crave foods that are higher in carbohydrates. This is why it's extremely important to maintain discipline and stick to low-fat, low-carb foods in order to end the cycle of fatigue. Improving sleep quality in other ways may also help, such as following a strict sleep schedule in which you go to bed and wake at the same times each day. The University of Maryland Medical Center also notes that sleeping on your side rather than your back with your upper body tilted upward can improve breathing quality during sleep.

Another factor that can worsen sleep apnea includes excessive consumption of alcohol, which can weaken the muscles in the back of the throat and cause breathing interruptions. Cigarette smoking, additionally, can cause the throat to swell and airways to tighten.