A common and potentially severe sleep disorder — obstructive sleep apnea — can be alleviated by a slimmer tongue, according to a new study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The study found that reducing the size of the tongue was a “major factor” in reducing the severity of obstructive sleep apnea symptoms and could also help improve sleep quality and reduce the potential health consequences associated with the disease.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a state in which air flow is temporarily blocked during sleep and prevents people from breathing properly. This condition may not be noticed in mild cases, but it can also be severe, causing people to wake up repeatedly at night, have headaches in the morning, and continue fatigue. If left untreated, the condition can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, tissue damage and other consequences.
Temporary treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is the use of CPAP machines, but in many cases weight loss can alleviate or eliminate the condition altogether. In addition to people with a sunken jaw or large tonsils, the main triggers for obstructive sleep apnea are thought to come mainly from neck fat.
However, according to the new study, fat that causes the tongue to swell may be a major factor in obstructive sleep apnea. The findings are based on MRI scans of the upper respiratory tract of obese patients with the disease. When a person loses weight, the tongue fat also decreases, and at this time, the severity of the disease also decreases.
The team found that obese people with obstructive sleep apnea were more likely to have larger tongues and more tongue fat than obese people without sleep apnea syndrome. To a lesser extent, the team also found that weight loss caused muscle contractions on both sides of the jaw muscles and airways responsible for chewing, which also helped to reduce the severity of obstructive sleep apnea.