At the American Sleep Apnea Association, we are quick to point out that one’s body weight is not the only reason why someone might develop sleep apnea.
- Some people, for instance, are born with upper airways that are crowded by oversized organs (like the tongue or the tonsils).
- Others may have high, narrow arches in their oral cavities which can create problems with breathing while asleep.
- Still others may have health concerns that lead to central sleep apnea, a sleep breathing disorder caused by a miscommunication between the brain and the respiratory system.
But being overweight is still a high risk factor for the development of obstructive sleep apnea. On one hand, carrying the extra weight can lead to breathing problems during sleep. On the other hand, a person with a sleep-breathing disorder that isn’t treated, and who isn’t obese, may begin to gain weight as a result.
“Your weight matters”
This slogan belongs to the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), a nonprofit healthcare advocacy organization. The OAC hosted the 7th annual “Your Weight Matters” national convention and exposition in New Orleans earlier this month.
Science-based weight management strategies are a major focus of this annual event. “Your Weight Matters” is the country’s largest educational trade show focused on weight awareness and management. It attracts patients, physicians, scientists, researchers and other weight-management experts from across the nation.
The OAC developed the concept in 2010 to generate discussion about weight loss between patients and healthcare providers that was nonjudgmental, empowering, and easy to initiate. Their effort is meant to promote weight loss, not out of cosmetic concerns, but by emphasizing good health as the ultimate goal.
Obesity is still an epidemic
According to statistics at the OAC website, “Today, 93 million Americans are affected by obesity and more than 33 percent of Americans are affected by excess weight.”
With so many already struggling to deal with social stigmas attached to body size and image, addressing unhealthy weight is even more difficult if people don’t feel their doctors are in their corner as cheerleaders, advisers, and supporters.
Some people realize their added weight can lead to many unhealthy medical conditions but struggle to face these concerns directly for fear of judgment and recrimination. Still others may not truly be aware that carrying extra pounds can have a grave impact on their health and well being.
Connections between obesity and chronic health problems
Carrying extra weight can lead to a wide range of comorbidities: health problems that exist in addition to obesity. The chronic conditions most commonly associated with excessive weight are heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Other issues include hypertension, inflammatory disorders, joint pain, mobility challenges, and, of course, obstructive sleep apnea.
The OAC has produced a comprehensive article on the connections between sleep apnea and obesity that we happily recommend for further reading.
They have also undertaken the considerable challenge of addressing how obesity is currently defined in this article discussing how metabolism is interconnected with other body processes that influence overall health.
From this, we learn that human biology is affected by excess weight in a way that practically guarantees we’ll face comorbidities like sleep apnea unless we are proactive about keeping to a healthy weight.
Sleep apnea, obesity, and children
We believe that one of the strengths of the OAC mission is its focus on childhood obesity. Excess weight in kids greatly increases their risk for developing lifelong obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
OSA may, in fact, be preventable, even cured, in children while they are still young, if weight management is a proactive part of treatment along with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or tonsillectomy.
But it can be especially difficult to address excess weight in children. Parents may believe their children will grow “into” their weight. Facts about obesity among our youngest suggest otherwise: one in three children is affected by childhood obesity. It’s now considered its own epidemic, one they’re likely to carry with them into adulthood.
Equally relevant to this discussion is the reality that children who are overweight may eventually develop sleep apnea.
DID YOU KNOW?
One of the first-ever cases of sleep-disordered breathing was chronicled by Charles Dickens in 1836 in the episodic novel referred to as The Pickwick Papers.
The young boy named Joe is referred to as the “fat boy” in Dickens’ story. The author’s characterization of Joe’s drowsy affectations (extreme daytime sleepiness and unusual breathing patterns as he slept) captured what we now recognize as obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS).
Today, people who experience these apnea-related symptoms are described today in medical communities as “Pickwickian.”
Sleep apnea is not a new problem for children. Today, it’s estimated that up to 4 percent of all children suffer from sleep apnea, many between the ages of 2 and 8.
Some of these children may already be overweight, but others may be of normal weight but become obese over time.
Think about it: the impact of untreated sleep apnea on a developing brain and body will eventually lead to changes in metabolism that are caused by systemic stress to the body that occurs nightly as these children sleep.
The result? Unhealthy food cravings, daytime fatigue, low physical energy, behavioral problems, and other developmental concerns that could lead to unhealthy weight gain.
A word about behavioral problems
Some researchers estimate that as many as a quarter of kids diagnosed with attention deficit problems may actually suffer from undetected, untreated sleep apnea.
Poor sleep can lead to many learning and behavior problems in children. Sleep apnea may be the root cause of poor sleep. Other apnea-related problems include bedwetting, sleepwalking, retarded growth, hormone imbalances, even failure to thrive for the youngest among our families.
Scientists also note other impacts to brain function in growing children with sleep-disordered breathing, such as limitations to cognitive flexibility, planning, self-monitoring, organization, and self-management of emotional responses.
What happens if you—or your child—needs to lose weight?
You’re not alone if your doctor (or your child’s pediatrician) suggests weight loss. It might be for better overall health, to address pain or mobility problems, to relieve behavioral problems, or as a path to alleviate chronic health problems. These can include sleep disorders like sleep apnea or insomnia.
While weight loss may not “cure” other health conditions like OSA, healthy weight loss and management can lead to better sleep, ease of mobility, higher energy levels, a more positive mood, and less pain and discomfort.
The ASAA applauds the efforts of the OAC to empower individuals and families to start their journeys to better health through weight awareness and management, as we know first-hand how weight loss can lead to improved sleep and relief for its disorders.