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Tongue Fat Could Be Causing Sleep Apnea

When a group of credible researchers published a paper that found that people with more tongue fat were more likely to have sleep apnea, the sleep disorder in which your breathing stops and starts throughout the night, it seemed kind of farfetched. And then, in a study just published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, they found that you could slim it down—seemingly even weirder news—and reduce sleep apnea in the process.

Scientists have long known that weight loss can help reduce sleep apnea and its attendant dangers, including fatigue, heart problems, diabetes and snoring that disrupts bed partners. But tongue fat? Isn’t the tongue a muscle, and don’t the muscly parts of the body tend to be lean?

Apparently not as far as the tongue is concerned. As lead researcher, Richard J. Schwab, M.D., of Penn Medicine’s division of sleep medicine told CNN, “it’s marbled with fat.” But less so when you have less body fat. That’s what this new study found when it did MRIs on 67 people who had both obesity and obstructive sleep apnea before and after they lost weight. It saw that weight loss changed the volume of upper airway tissues and reduced the severity of sleep apnea.

In fact, that’s what the researchers were looking at: To see whether overall weight loss would actually change the anatomy of your upper airways in a way that would improve apnea (see signs of sleep apnea, here).

Surgery to the upper airways isn’t always effective in treating sleep apnea, even though that does change the structures there, of course. So they wondered if changing anatomy by changing the fat content of those tissues might help, as opposed to just changing the structure of all the tissues there, as surgery does.


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This finding might help researchers lay down one more piece in the puzzle that will lead to successful elimination of sleep apnea—especially in finding a solution that doesn’t involve the current gold-standard remedy of a CPAP machine, which people who need to use it tend to really dislike (even when they love the results it brings of better sleep, more energy, and better health). At the same time doctors are working on anatomical clues and solutions, tech experts are working on other solutions as well (see some potential new devices here).

Weight change isn’t the only answer, though, since even people at their ideal weight get apnea, too. But researchers are continuing to look down numerous avenues to keep you (and your partner) sleeping more healthfully at night.

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