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What Is Sleep Apnea and How To Tell If You Have It

By Carole Anderson Lucia

Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, RDN

If you’ve ever shared a bed with someone who snores — you can probably attest to the annoyance. But snoring isn’t just a bothersome habit — it could be a sign of a greater health concern — obstructive sleep apnea. 


The condition, which causes brief cessations of breathing during sleep, as well as consequent sleep disruptions, can leave you feeling irritable and fatigued. But that’s not all: Sleep apnea also increases the risk of several serious conditions, including high blood pressure, stroke and other cardiovascular problems. It is also associated with Type 2 diabetes.1


Here’s what you need to know about the condition, including why it’s on the rise, how to tell if you have sleep apnea and what you can do if you are diagnosed with it.

Q: What is sleep apnea?

A: There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common and is caused by the airway becoming blocked, typically by tissue in the back of the throat that collapses and closes off the airway.2 Central sleep apnea, which is the less common of the two, does not involve the airway becoming blocked; rather, it is caused by the brain not sending the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing.3 


Regardless of which type is involved, sleep apnea causes breathing to stop and start throughout the night — sometimes dozens, or even hundreds, of times.4 These cessations in breathing often last for a minute or longer, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association, although most people don’t even realize they stop breathing.5  


We’ll focus on obstructive sleep apnea here (but refer to it simply as sleep apnea).

Q: What causes people to develop sleep apnea?

man and woman snoring with sleep apneaA: While anyone can develop sleep apnea, being overweight or obese is the major risk factor, according to the American Alliance for Healthy Sleep.6 Having a body mass index of 25 or higher increases your risk,6 as excess tissue in the neck can add extra pressure on the airway or tongue, increasing the chance that your airway will become blocked.7 


Other risk factors include the following, according to the Mayo Clinic:8  

  • Having a narrow airway. Naturally having a narrow airway can predispose you to sleep apnea, so can having enlarged tonsils.
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Being chronically congested. Sleep apnea is twice as common in people who consistently have nasal congestion at night.
  • Being a smoker. 
  • Having diabetes. 
  • Being male. Men are about twice as likely to have obstructive sleep apnea. (However, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook if you’re a woman; research shows that while women do tend to have less severe symptoms,9 approximately 25 percent of U.S. women exhibiting many of these symptoms are at high risk for sleep apnea,10 while approximately 17 percent have been diagnosed with the condition. ) 
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea.11 
  • Having asthma. 


According to the American Alliance for Healthy Sleep,6 your age can also play a factor, as sleep apnea tends to be more common once you reach young adulthood or middle age. The risk also increases for women once they reach menopause. And the National Sleep Foundation12 reports that the size of your neck can be a risk factor: The risk of sleep apnea is increased in men if their neck circumference is 17 inches or greater, and in women if their measurements are 16 inches or greater. 

Q: How can I tell if I have sleep apnea?

A: According to Harvard Health,4 loud, explosive snoring is one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea. Other symptoms include:13

  • Being excessively sleepy during the day for no apparent reason
  • Experiencing pauses in breathing during sleep (typically observed by your partner) 
  • Waking abruptly, especially if you are gasping or feeling short of breath
  • Having insomnia
  • Experiencing problems with your memory or concentration
  • Experiencing changes in your mood 
  • Being excessively fatigued


Experts recommend seeing your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Q: How common is sleep apnea?

A: It’s very common — and it’s gotten even more so during the past two decades, the AASM14 reports, likely due to the obesity epidemic. At least 25 million adults in the U.S. now have sleep apnea, the AASM states. 

Lifestyle changes that can help sleep apnea

woman stretching outdoorsInstituting certain lifestyle changes can help sleep apnea, especially if you’re overweight or obese. One small study, conducted in 2009,15 found that weight loss was possibly the most effective tool for improving the symptoms of sleep apnea — and, in fact, that weight loss could actually cure the condition in some instances. Another study from 201416 also found that weight loss is effective in reducing the severity of sleep apnea, and that it should be encouraged for treating mild to moderate cases of sleep apnea. 


Many organizations, including the American Thoracic Society17 and the American College of Physicians,18 recommend weight loss as a first-line treatment for overweight people with sleep apnea. According to Harvard Health,19 for instance, losing 10 percent of your body weight can improve the symptoms of sleep apnea, while significant weight loss can actually cure it. 


Also, getting in the habit of exercising regularly can help. A 2016 study20 found that people with sleep apnea who get regular physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, experience an improvement in the severity of their symptoms even if they don’t lose weight. The researchers speculate that the improvements may be due to a number of factors, including improved tone of several airway muscles, reduced fluid accumulation in the neck, improved slow-wave sleep (known as stage 3 of your sleep cycle) and reduced systemic inflammation


Beyond weight loss and exercise, other lifestyle interventions include:21

  • Avoiding alcohol before bedtime 
  • Using a positioning device placed behind your back to help you sleep on your side or stomach, rather than on your back (this tends to make sleep apnea worse for some) 
  • Quitting or avoiding smoking22 


Your doctor may also recommend other treatments, which might include the use of a special mask worn during sleep to help keep your airway open, a specially designed oral appliance, an airway stimulation device, or perhaps surgery.21


Even if you do have sleep apnea, rest assured that there are many effective ways to treat the condition, and to give yourself the gift of better health in the process. 


If you suffer from sleep apnea, weight loss can be one of the best tools to help treat your condition. Contact Jenny Craig today to get started on the path to better health today!


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[1] https://www.sleepapnea.org/learn/sleep-apnea-information-clinicians/
[2] https://www.sleepapnea.org/learn/sleep-apnea/obstructive-sleep-apnea/  [3] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/central-sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20352109
[4] https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/strategies-for-sleep-apnea
[5] https://www.sleepapnea.org/learn/sleep-apnea/
[6] http://sleepeducation.org/essentials-in-sleep/sleep-apnea/symptoms-risk-factors
[7] https://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Patients/Programs-and-Services/Pain-Center/Sleep-Apnea/Lifestyle-Changes-to-Help-Treat-Sleep-Apnea.aspx
[8] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obstructive-sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20352090
[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5028797/
[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5323064/
[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4561280/
[12] https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/losing-weight-sleep-apnea
[13] http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/sleep-apnea/what-is-osa/symptoms
[14] https://aasm.org/rising-prevalence-of-sleep-apnea-in-u-s-threatens-public-health/
[15] https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/rccm.200805-669OC
[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25192671
[17] https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/rccm.201807-1326ST
[18] https://www.acponline.org/acp-newsroom/american-college-of-physicians-releases-new-recommendations-for-treating-obstructive-sleep-apnea
[19] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/weight-loss-breathing-devices-still-best-for-treating-obstructive-sleep-apnea-201310026713
[20] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5344097/
[21] https://www.sleepapnea.org/treat/sleep-apnea-treatment-options/
[22] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20377636



Carole Anderson Lucia

Carole Anderson Lucia, Contributing Writer for Jenny Craig

Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.


Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus


Briana Rodriquez, RDN

Briana Rodriquez, RDN at Jenny Craig
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs. 


Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!) 



This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and reviewed by certified professionals. 


Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on the topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy. 


This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.


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