Losing weight can help your sleep, according to a new study that found tongue fat can increase your risk of sleep apnea.
The study says that losing fat in your tongue can alleviate symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The condition occurs when people stop and start breathing during sleep. Patients wake up randomly during sleep and often snore. The condition can increase the risk for stroke and high blood pressure. Obesity is a risk factor, but so is having a recessed jaw or large tonsils.
According to a report in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, a team led by Dr. Richard Schwab, the chief of sleep medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, used MRI scans to look at how weight loss affected the upper airway. They say that lowering tongue fat is a primary factor to ease the severity of OSA.
Though we already knew weight loss can improve symptoms, Schwab said research hasn’t looked at fat loss in the tongue.
“Now that we know tongue fat is a risk factor and that sleep apnea improves when tongue fat is reduced, we have established a unique therapeutic target that we’ve never had before,” he said in a statement.
In 2014, Schwab conducted research that found patients with obesity and OSA had larger tongues and higher percentages of tongue fat compared to those without sleep apnea.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommended that doctors examine it during screenings.
“Fat deposition within the tongue and potentially other structures surrounding the upper airway may transform our understanding of the link between weight gain and OSA, with wide-ranging implications for diagnosis and treatment,” Dr. Eric J. Kezirian, a professor in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Southern California, wrote in an accompanying editorial to Schwab’s 2014 work.
Losing weight can affect breathing
In the current study, Schwab’s team evaluated 67 participants with obesity and mild to severe OSA. They had MRI scans in their pharynx and abdomen prior to losing weight. Patients lost about 10 percent of their body weight via diet or weight loss surgery over a 6-month span. After losing weight and having another MRI, the team quantified changes in their weight loss, as well as reductions of the volume in the upper airway structures. Their sleep apnea scores improved by 31 percent, and tongue fat loss was the biggest link between weight loss and OSA improvement.
Losing weight also reduced the volume between the pterygoid (a jaw muscle that controls chewing) and pharyngeal lateral wall (the muscles on the sides of the airway). That improved OSA, but not as effectively or to the extent of tongue fat loss.
“To see the real benefits of weight loss in reducing tongue fat, the patients that would benefit the most are those who have substantial tongue fat to begin with,” Kezirian told Healthline. People store their body weight differently, meaning that there are people who are very heavy and have increased body fat but do not have much tongue fat and often do not have sleep apnea, he explained.
Treating tongue fat
Now that he knows tongue fat loss could help some of the 22 million Americans battling OSA, Schwab hopes it will trigger more research into new methods to reduce tongue fat.
Schwab would like to know if certain low fat diets can work better than others in tongue fat reduction, or whether cold therapies currently used to reduce stomach fat could do the same in our tongues.
Exercises can be beneficial to reduce fat in the tongue.