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Nutrition, Fitness and Lifestyle Choices for Sleep Apnea

By Eric Kezirian, M.D. ; Updated August 14, 2017

Fortunately, there are nutrition, fitness and lifestyle choices you can make to dramatically reduce your sleep apnea symptoms.

Weight Loss

Weight loss can be very beneficial for overweight or obese patients with obstructive sleep apnea. This is especially true in people who developed sleep apnea when they gained weight. There is no obvious way to know how much weight someone should lose, and a person with sleep apnea should try to get back closer to a normal body weight. It is generally felt that a 10 percent weight loss (20 pounds for someone who weighs 200 pounds) is needed for a substantial improvement in sleep apnea. Proper nutrition and regular exercise are essential elements of a responsible weight-loss plan, and those attempting to lose substantial weight may benefit from working with a health professional. Some individuals may need to consider weight-loss surgery if they are markedly obese.

Avoid Late-Night Eating

Avoiding the consumption of food or drink within three hours of bedtime can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms. Particularly if you have acid reflux disease, you should eliminate late-night eating because these symptoms can contribute to obstructive and central sleep apnea. Some foods that should be avoided (especially at night) in patients with acid reflux disease are fatty foods, spicy foods, chocolate, caffeine, tea, mint and citrus.

Stop Smoking

Smoking causes swelling of the lining of the nose and throat. This can especially contribute to obstructive sleep apnea and cause difficulties tolerating treatment like positive airway pressure therapy.

Avoid Alcohol Before Bedtime

At least three hours before going to bed, avoid alcohol, narcotics or sedatives. All of these can worsen sleep apnea because they decrease the brain’s signals for a person to breathe (which is the cause of central sleep apnea) as well as cause muscle relaxation, including the relaxation of the tongue and soft palate (which can block the airway and cause obstructive sleep apnea). Alcohol has additional ways that it can harm sleep, including causing people to wake up in the middle of the night without being able to fall back asleep. Additionally, alcohol decreases the amount of deep, restful sleep that people get.

Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule

We all have internal clocks (called circadian rhythms) that coordinate many body functions to run over a period of approximately 24 hours. Sleep is one of these functions. Therefore, it is important to maintain a regular sleep schedule, meaning going to bed and waking up at the same times each day and getting the recommended 7 to 7.5 hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, many people try to sleep in on weekends to make up for sleep deprivation during the week, but this can throw off the circadian rhythm, so it’s important to attempt a regular sleep schedule every day of the week.

Regular Exercise

In addition to the benefits of exercise for weight loss and general health, regular exercise also improves the quality and consistency of sleep. The one limitation is that exercise should be done more than three hours before bedtime because it could cause difficulty falling asleep for some.

Spend Time in Bed Only for Sleeping

If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, avoid spending time in your bed while participating in waking activities, such as watching television or using electronic devices like a smartphone or computer. Everyone wakes up naturally a few times during the night, but they aren’t aware of it because they fall back asleep quickly. For those who are used to being awake in bed, they may be more likely to have difficulty falling back to sleep.

Cool Bedroom Temperature

Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature. A bedroom at the wrong temperature, especially one that is too hot, can disrupt sleep. During sleep the body’s core temperature falls, so a hot bedroom interferes with this natural process and can wake up some people.

Establish a Bedtime Routine

About an hour before going to bed, reduce stimulation and begin a routine that calms your body and mind. Here is an example of a bedtime routine: Turn off all your electronics, close the curtains, do some gentle stretches, close your eyes and take some deep breaths, put on your pajamas, turn out the lights, listen to relaxing music and crawl into bed. Having the same routine every night sends signals to the body and mind that it’s time to relax, release any worries or tension from the day and fall asleep.

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