Sleep apnea: Healthy plant-based diet may lower risk by 19% – Medical News Today

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Choosing more healthy plant-based food sources could help reduce the risk of sleep apnea, research suggests. Sophia Hsin/Stocksy
  • Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder that has been linked directly to cardiovascular issues, and indirectly to cancer, diabetes, and dementia due to loss of healthy sleep.
  • A new study finds that eating a healthy plant-based diet can significantly reduce the risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea.
  • The study also indicates that consuming an unhealthy plant-based diet heavy in refined grains, sugar, and salt, as well as too many animal-based foods, significantly raises the chances of developing obstructive sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs at a time least likely to be detected by a person who has it — while they are sleeping. Nonetheless, it is a serious condition. There is a range of factors that may cause it. A new study investigates the effect of a plant-based diet on the likelihood of developing OSA.

While the study finds eating a plant-centric diet can help one avoid OSA, it also finds that the quality of that diet is critically important.

The study found that people who adhered most closely to a healthy plant-based diet (hPDI) lowered their risk of OSA by 19%, and people who were pro-vegetarian (largely vegetarian) also saw a significant reduction in risk. However, eating an unhealthy plant-based diet (uHPDI) can significantly raise one’s risk of OSA, by 22%.

The culprits in an unhealthy plant diet are the usual suspects that have been linked to a range of health issues: refined grains, high sugar, and salt, as well as heavily processed foods, which often contain all three.

The study is the first to investigate plant-based diets of different qualities as they might affect the likelihood of developing OSA. The Australian study analyzed cross-sectional data from 14,210 participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. All participants reported the foods they consumed over the previous 24 hours.

To assess the risk of OSA, the researchers used the STOP-BANG questionnaire, an acronym for Snoring, Tired, Observed (Snort), Pressure (blood pressure), body mass index (BMI), Age, Neck, Gender).

The study is published in ERJ Open Research, a publication of the European Respiratory Society.

OSA is a sleep-related breathing disorder in which a physical obstruction blocks the intake of oxygen through the nose or throat, explained neuroscientist and sleep expert, Dr. Chelsie Rohrscheib, who was not involved in the study.

“OSA is primarily due to anatomical issues in the upper airways. A person with OSA may have abnormally small airways, a small, or narrow jaw, large soft tissues in the throat such as a large tongue or tonsils, or an obstructed nasal passage,” she told Medical News Today.

“These features make the airways more prone to blockage during sleep and restrict the flow of oxygen,” said Dr. Rohrscheib.

She noted as well that excess weight can result in fat deposits around the neck and face, placing pressure on one’s airways. Losing weight may help, but if the basic reasons for OSA are anatomical, the condition may nonetheless persist.

“A person with OSA stops breathing many times per hour, which causes a drop in their blood oxygen levels,” said Dr. Rohrscheib. “When the brain detects that oxygen levels are too low, it will wake the individual up briefly to start breathing again.”

At a minimum, this start-and-stop breathing and sleeping can be exhausting, ruining the deep sleep one needs for health. OSA, said Dr. Rohrscheib, is associated with an increased risk of many serious chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

“Hypoxia, the frequent drops in blood oxygen levels, places a large strain on the body, which can lead to damage over time. Hypoxia is especially hard on the cardiovascular system,” said Dr. Rohrscheib.

It also increases a person’s risk of chronic inflammation, which has been tied to various metabolic illnesses.

The study’s first author, Dr. Yohannes Melaku, said “OSA is known to be influenced by genetic, metabolic, and behavioral factors, with diet emerging as a crucial risk factor. Previous research primarily focused on various dietary behaviors, but less so on the link with a plant-based diet specifically.”

Not all plant-based or pro-vegetarian diets are the same, nor are they all equally healthy.

”Our research indicates a clear correlation: a higher score in the hPDI is linked with a lower risk of OSA, whereas a high score in the uPDI has an inverse relationship,” said Dr. Melaku.

This supports the general idea of integrating healthier, plant-sourced foods into one’s daily diet, even when other non-plant foods may also be consumed.

Keep ultra-processed foods to a minimum

However, said Dr. Melaku, “The key is to limit the intake of processed and animal-based foods like refined grains, sweets, desserts, and meat while increasing consumption of whole plant foods like grains, vegetables, and nuts.”

“Occasional indulgence,” he said, “may be acceptable, but regular consumption could be detrimental.”

Michelle Routhenstein, cardiology dietician and preventive cardiology nutritionist at EntirelyNourished.com, who was also not involved in the study, and listed some ill effects of an unhealthy plant diet:

“Consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea due to factors such as obesity, inflammation, insulin resistance, poor sleep quality, and exacerbation of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).”

For people who prefer to complement a plant-based diet with some animal-based foods, Routhenstein suggested: “Foods rich in unsaturated fats from fatty fish like salmon or sardines can improve the overall nutritional profile and contribute to a positive PVDI [pro-vegetarian diet index] score.

This is “because they provide essential omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA, which are associated with numerous health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, improved brain function, and anti-inflammatory effects,” Routhenstein said.

This menu may sound familiar.

“Indeed, the PVDI shares similarities with the Mediterranean diet, particularly in its emphasis on whole, plant-sourced foods,” said Dr. Melaku.

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