Losing weight from your tongue may just help combat sleep apnea: Study
A new study suggests that fatty tongues may be the primary cause of the obstructive form of sleep apnea.
Around a billion people globally suffer from sleep apnea, which is caused by the partial or complete blockage of the airway during sleep. There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (where upper airway gets blocked) and central sleep apnea (cessation of respiratory drive). Those suffering from sleep apnea might have cyclical bouts of snoring and periods during sleep where they are unable to breathe.
A new study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine suggests that fatty tongues may be the primary cause of the obstructive form of sleep apnea. The tongue and muscles of the soft palate get depressed and prevent regular airflow.
While obesity has been linked to the disease previously, this is the first study that has used imaging to illustrate that weight loss (and subsequent decrease in the size of the tongue and the surrounding muscle of the upper airway) can lower the severity of the disorder. Those who are obese are more likely to have fatty tongues and larger necks - a combination that can lead to obstructions.
For the study, researchers worked with 67 individuals suffering from OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) with BMIs (body mass index, a measure of body fat based on weight and height) over 30. A BMI above 30 suggests that a person is obese. The participants underwent sleep studies and received MRIs of the abdominal and upper airway region before and after an intensive weight-loss intervention. The objective of the study was to observe weight loss from the tongue and upper airway and its effect on sleep apnea.
The study showed that overall weight loss also leads to a loss in tongue volume and weight. This was the most reliable indicator in terms of reducing the severity of sleep apnea, more so than overall weight loss in surrounding soft tissue. Sleep analysis showed that symptoms improved by 31% on average.
Complications involved with sleep apnea
Chronic sleep apnea leads to a host of issues. It has been linked to cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, liver problems and behavioural issues. Due to the poor quality of sleep, those with OSA may suffer from sleep deprivation disorders that lower overall immunity. Currently, the most reliable treatment for the condition is CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) in which a machine that generates a slightly higher pressure is hooked to the person to keep the airways open. It is a cumbersome device that is noisy and takes some getting used to.
This study may lay the foundation for less intrusive interventions. It is not yet known how the tongue accumulates fat or if there is any way to prevent this accumulation. The researchers of the study though, encouraged by these results, are now examining just these questions.
Tongue exercises may be the future
The takeaway is that losing weight can lower the severity of sleep apnea. While this is encouraging, it isn’t very helpful. Cold therapies, which include freezing cells in the tongue that produce fat, could be a potential form of therapy. Exercises that engage the tongue, such as playing wind instruments, could also have favourable outcomes.
The study may also explain the cases of those who suffer from OSA but are not obese - perhaps their tongues are congenitally larger and the surrounding tissue weaker. We can cautiously hope that we are coming closer to a fuller understanding of a disorder that affects the lives of so many.
For more on this topic, please read our articles on Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment.
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The US National Sleep Foundation defines sleep apnea as a type of sleep disorder that is marked by abnormal breathing.