Sleep apnea may be tied to tongue fat, study finds

A fat tongue might be hurting your sleep

When patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) show symptom relief from weight loss, it may be from fat reduction in one relatively small part of the body, researchers suggested.

"If you lose weight, AHI improves, and this study showed that the primary factor mediating that is a reduction in tongue fat", he said, explaining that while obesity is a key risk factor for OSA, and weight loss is well recognized as an effective treatment strategy, the mechanism or mechanisms driving this are not well understood.

According to scientists, tongue fat can be a potential therapeutic target for improving sleep apnea.

Sleep apnoea, which causes the breathing to stop and start frequently during the night makes people wake up randomly, breaking sleep cycles and affects around 13 per cent of men and six per cent of women in Britain. If left untreated, this condition can cause high blood pressure, heart problems, tissue damage, and more. To a lesser extent, the team also found that weight loss caused the jaw muscle responsible for chewing and the muscles on the sides of the airway to shrink, which also helped reduce obstructive sleep apnea severity.

The team found that obese people who also have obstructive sleep apnea were more likely to have "significantly larger tongues" and higher amounts of tongue fat in comparison to obese people who didn't have sleep apnea.

The participants lost almost 10 per cent of their body weight, on average, over six months through diet or weight loss surgery, and correspondingly their sleep apnea scores improved by 31 per cent after the intervention.

Overall, their sleep apnea scores improved by 31% after the weight loss intervention, as measured by a sleep study.

Before and after the weight loss intervention, the study participants underwent MRI scans to both their pharynx as well as their abdomens.

"Study finds that weight loss appears improve #obstructivesleepapnea, or #OSA, primarly by reducing tongue fat".

MRI was also used to examine 12 measures of soft tissue volume, including tongue, tongue fat, soft palate, para-pharyngeal fat pads, lateral walls, pterygoids, epiglottis, and combined soft tissue volume. They suggest that future studies could be created to explore whether certain low-fat diets are better than others in reducing tongue fat and whether cold therapies used to reduce stomach fat might be applied to reducing tongue size.

Fatty tongues are apparently one factor that could impact sleep apnea. Their recent study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, said reducing tongue fat is a primary factor in lessening the severity of OSA.

This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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