Losing Weight to Reverse Sleep Apnea

by David Mendosa Patient Advocate

Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common complications of diabetes, especially among people who are overweight. A recent study of 306 obese people with type 2 diabetes who wanted to lose weight found that more than 86 percent of them had sleep apnea.

The standard treatment for sleep apnea is wearing a CPAP machine for continuous positive airway pressure when we sleep. People who don't control sleep apnea are much more likely to have high blood pressure, strokes, impaired quality of life, and a shorter life.

When I had sleep apnea, I was afraid that it will kill me. My sleep apnea was so severe when I did a sleep study in a hospital that they found I had 84 apneic episodes per hour. Before I wore a CPAP machine, I knew that I risked falling asleep at the wheel, as I wrote five years ago in Diabetes Wellness News.

The CPAP controlled my sleep apnea. Losing weight reversed it.

Until now we've had only anecdotal evidence like my experience that weight loss can reverse sleep apnea for those of us who have diabetes. Now, for the first time we have a large study (264 obese people with type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea) for a long time (one year) and a randomized comparison group.

The Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, just published the study results in its September 28 issue. Gary Foster, Ph.D., of Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education, and 11 co-authors for the Sleep AHEAD Research Group, wrote "A Randomized Study on the Effect of Weight Loss on Obstructive Sleep Apnea Among Obese Patients With Type 2 Diabetes."

Only the abstract is free online. But an account executive from Schwartz Communications, a public relations agency specializing in technology and health-care, thoughtfully sent me the full text of the study.

The average weight of the people in the study was 224 pounds. At the beginning of the study they had an average of 23 apneic episodes per hour, which by definition is severe sleep apnea.

After one year and a weight loss averaging 24 pounds, the people in the weight loss arm of the program averaged 13 apneic episodes per hour. That brought them into the moderate sleep apnea range.

In that period more than three times as many people in the weight loss arm of the program had total remission of their sleep apnea compared with those in the control group. And the prevalence of severe sleep apnea in the weight loss arm of the program was half of that of those in the control group.

If you are overweight and have sleep apnea, you may have thought that losing weight was just too hard to do. Now, however, the encouragement from this new study may make it easier.

David Mendosa
Meet Our Writer
David Mendosa

David Mendosa was a journalist who learned in 1994 that he had type 2 diabetes, which he wrote about exclusively. He died in May 2017 after a short illness unrelated to diabetes. He wrote thousands of diabetes articles, two books about it, created one of the first diabetes websites, and published a monthly newsletter, “Diabetes Update.” His very low-carbohydrate diet, A1C level of 5.3, and BMI of 19.8 kept his diabetes in remission without any drugs until his death.