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Short Sleep Duration, Sleep Apnea, and Increased Abdominal Fat

Obesity and sleep apnea have long been linked together, although there has been some question as to which might cause the other. Do the breathing stoppages characteristic of sleep apnea lead to a slower metabolic rate that makes it easier to put on extra weight? Or does the extra pressure from excess weight around the airway lead to the airway becoming blocked more often? The general consensus has been that while it may be difficult to determine which would cause the other, for most patients, improvement in one area leads to improvement in the other: treating a person’s sleep apnea symptoms can give them more energy from a better night’s rest, so they are able to exercise more often and better control their diet. Conversely, losing weight can improve sleep apnea symptoms at night, and for some people, completely resolve it.

A new study by a team of researchers in South Korea examines a third factor to see how it relates, if it at all, to sleep apnea and obesity. That factor is sleep duration, the amount of time a person spends asleep during the night.

Some significant relationships

Fat Guy Workout croppedIn their cross-sectional study of over 800 participants ages 40-69 years old, the researchers evaluated sleep duration using a sleep questionnaire, sleep apnea using a home portable sleep study, and abdominal fat using computed tomography (also referred to as a CT imaging or a CAT scan). Next, they examined the data to see if any relationships could be determined. They found that those with the highest degrees of abdominal fat got the shortest amount of sleep. This decreased in linear proportion, meaning that those with more regular amounts of sleep (around 7 hours) had lower amounts of abdominal fat. Those with sleep apnea had a higher percentage of body fat, larger waist circumference, and a higher body mass index than those without sleep apnea, after adjusting for age and sex factors. Evaluating all factors together, those who had short sleep durations and sleep apnea were four times more likely to have significant abdominal fat than those sleep longer without sleep apnea.

What can be done?

While the authors could not determine which factor might lead to the others due to the cross-sectional design of the study, they did suggest that it seemed clear that a short sleep duration combined with

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the presence of sleep apnea negatively affects the body’s metabolic rates, which can lead to increased weight.

Fortunately, those suffering from any of these three conditions can take some degree of control and work to improve their health condition. Establishing good sleep hygiene habits, particularly a regular bed time and time to get up in the morning that is sufficient for the body to get adequate rest, is a good place to start. This may mean adjusting some environmental factors, such as a social schedule or activity commitments, but the payoff of better health and more energy to exercise and take on the day’s demands will be worth it. Starting an exercise regimen with a focus on cardio exercises to burn overall body fat and core exercises to burn abdominal fat will also be helpful. If sleep apnea symptoms persist, consider seeing a sleep specialist to be test for sleep apnea.

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