21st January, 20203 min read

Could losing tongue fat improve sleep apnoea?

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Tomas Duffin
Tomas Duffin
Last reviewed: 21/01/2020
Medically reviewed

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Sleep apnoea is a condition that can cause you to stop breathing repeatedly while you sleep, and continued interruption to your sleep can leave you feeling tired during the day.

But now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine say they have discovered an unlikely way to improve sleep apnoea symptoms - by losing fat from your tongue.

It may not have occurred to you that this part of your body could be overweight - especially if the rest of you isn’t - but the study suggests it could be key to improving the condition.

What is sleep apnoea in adults?

The word ‘apnoea’ means without breath - in other words, your breathing stops. Each pause in breathing lasts for around 10 seconds while you sleep. You then wake up briefly to start breathing again.

In extreme cases, sleep apnoea can cause you to fall asleep during the day without memory of it happening.

The most common type of the condition is called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

The study

Researchers used medical imaging (MRI scan) to measure the effect of weight loss on the upper airways - including the nose, nasal passages and sinuses - in overweight patients and found that reducing tongue fat was a major factor in improving sleep apnoea symptoms.

The study was based on the experience of 67 people with OSA whose symptoms ranged from mild to severe and had a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30.0 (clinically obese).

Researchers found that once the people in the study had lost nearly 10% of their body weight, a reduction in tongue fat volume was the ‘primary link’ between weight loss and sleep apnoea improving.

Sleep apnoea symptoms

It can be hard to tell if you have sleep apnoea, as most of the symptoms happen when you’re asleep. Sleep apnoea tests usually involve special equipment from a sleep clinic.

It may be helpful to have someone stay with you while you sleep to check for the following:

At night:

  • your breathing stopping and starting
  • loud snoring
  • gasping, snorting or choking noises
  • waking up regularly

During the day:

  • sleepiness, including falling asleep
  • difficulty concentrating
  • mood swings
  • headaches in the morning

Higher-risk groups for sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is often thought to affect middle-aged, overweight men who snore loudly. However, it can affect anyone.

Any of the following factors can increase your risk of developing this sleep disorder:

  • obesity
  • having a large neck
  • having large tonsils or lumps of tissue at the back of the nose (adenoids)
  • smoking and drinking alcohol
  • other family members with sleep apnoea

If you think you have sleep apnoea, speak with a doctor before attempting to lose weight. There may be other causes for your condition, and a doctor can guide you on the next best steps.

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