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Obstructive Sleep Apnea: 5 Self-Care Strategies

If you're one of the 18 million adult Americans with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), it's crucial to see a doctor for treatment. Sleep apnea can interrupt your sleep, especially deep-stage slumber, and increase your risk for other health conditions, including heart disease.

Beyond seeing a doctor for sleep apnea treatment, there are things you can do at home to improve your sleep apnea symptoms. Some strategies have the added benefit of improving your health, reducing the risk of related medical conditions.

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Tip 1: Lose Weight if You Need to

Obesity is considered the most important risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea. Weight loss – even a modest amount -- can improve sleep apnea. Not all people with sleep apnea are overweight or obese, but many are.

In a Finnish study published in 2010, 71 people with sleep apnea were given lifestyle counseling or participated in a lifestyle modification program that included a 12-week low-calorie diet. On average, those in the weight loss group shed 16 pounds. After two years, their sleep apnea was much less severe than the sleep apnea in the lifestyle counseling group. 

A U.S. study published in 2009 looked at the effect of weight loss on obstructive sleep apnea among obese people with type 2 diabetes. The people in the study were assigned to either a weight loss group or a diabetes management group over a one-year period. On average, those in the weight loss group lost nearly 24 pounds, while those in the second group lost just 1.3 pounds.

The effects of losing weight were even more dramatic in this study. Three times as many people in the weight loss group wound up with no symptoms of sleep apnea at all. And among the people in that group who still had sleep apnea, it was much less severe after losing weight.

Tip 2: Limit Alcohol and Stop Smoking

You already know that smoking and drinking too much alcohol are hazardous to your health. Did you know they can also make your sleep apnea symptoms worse? Cigarette smoking makes the swelling in your upper airway worse. That can aggravate symptoms such as snoring and pauses in breathing. 

Alcohol decreases the muscle tone in the back of the throat, which can interfere with breathing -- the last thing you need when you already have breathing problems.

Tip 3: Eat Healthy

Like everyone else, people with sleep apnea should eat a healthy diet. But people with sleep apnea may be more likely to eat unhealthy foods, some research suggests. 

Sleep deprivation may lead to increased cravings for carbohydrates. Sleep deprivation and fatigue have also been linked with changes in the appetite regulators leptin and ghrelin, which control feelings of hunger and fullness. When you don’t sleep, you may want to eat more and feel less satisfied when you do. 

You don’t need to be overweight to have an unhealthy diet. In a 2008 study of 320 adults, those with more severe sleep apnea ate more protein, fat, and saturated fatty acids than those with the less severe sleep apnea, regardless of how much they weighed. 

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