Eating More Plants Could Reduce Sleep Apnea Risk by 19%

David Martinez

Written by David Martinez


Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is more than just a nuisance that causes snoring and poor sleep; it’s a serious condition with far-reaching health implications. As research delves deeper, the connection between our dietary choices and the risk of developing OSA comes into sharper focus. It turns out that what we choose to put on our plates could influence our likelihood of experiencing this disruptive sleep disorder.

The Impact of a Plant-Based Diet on OSA

While it’s well-known that OSA can lead to cardiovascular problems and may even have indirect links to cancer, diabetes, and dementia, recent insights suggest that a healthy plant-based diet could be a powerful tool in reducing the risk of developing OSA. A diet rich in whole, plant-sourced foods is becoming increasingly recognized for its health benefits, including the potential to prevent the onset of sleep apnea.

The Risks of Unhealthy Plant-Based and Animal-Heavy Diets

However, not all plant-based diets are created equal. An unhealthy plant-based diet—one high in refined grains, sugar, salt, and processed items—can actually up the risk of OSA by 22%. Similarly, excessive consumption of animal-based foods has also been linked to an increased risk of OSA. This is due to the way these diets can contribute to obesity, inflammation, insulin resistance, poor sleep quality, and exacerbation of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—all factors that play a role in the development of sleep apnea.

The Stealthy Nature of OSA

One of the challenges with OSA is its stealthy nature; since it occurs during sleep, many are unaware they have the condition until significant symptoms or complications arise. Recognizing risk factors like anatomical issues in the upper airways, excess weight, and fat deposits around the neck and face is crucial for early detection.

How Disrupted Breathing Affects Health

OSA is characterized by disrupted breathing patterns during sleep, which can lead to chronic health issues. The frequent drops in blood oxygen levels strain the body, especially the cardiovascular system, and contribute to chronic inflammation. This can exacerbate existing health problems and create new ones.

Insights from the STOP-BANG Questionnaire and National Health Data

To better understand the relationship between diet and OSA, researchers turned to the data of 14,210 participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, utilizing the STOP-BANG questionnaire, an established tool for OSA assessment. Published in ERJ Open Research by the European Respiratory Society, the study is the first of its kind to examine the quality of plant-based diets in connection to OSA.

The Protective Effect of Healthy Plant-Based Diets

The findings were revealing: individuals adhering to a healthy plant-based diet lowered their risk of OSA by 19%. This was assessed using a healthy plant-based diet index (hPDI), where a higher score indicated a diet rich in beneficial plant foods and a lower risk for OSA. Conversely, the unhealthy plant-based diet index (uPDI) showed that a diet filled with less nutritious plant foods was associated with an increased risk.

Whole Foods Over Processed Options

As such, experts recommend increasing the intake of whole plant foods while reducing the consumption of processed and animal-based products. While an occasional treat might not be detrimental, regular indulgence in unhealthy foods can have harmful long-term effects.

Addressing OSA Beyond Weight Concerns

It’s important to note that while excess weight can exacerbate OSA, the condition can persist due to anatomical reasons regardless of weight loss. Therefore, a comprehensive approach to prevention and treatment is essential.

The Role of Diet Quality in OSA Prevention

The study underscores the importance of diet quality in managing and preventing OSA. By opting for a diet that emphasizes whole, plant-based foods, such as the pro-vegetarian diet index (PVDI) and the Mediterranean diet, individuals can improve their overall health while potentially lowering the risk of sleep apnea.

Enhancing Plant-Based Diets with Unsaturated Fats

Complementing a plant-based diet with foods high in unsaturated fats, like fatty fish, can further enhance the nutritional profile and health benefits. This balanced approach to eating supports not only sleep health but overall well-being.

Making Informed Dietary Choices for Better Sleep Health

Ultimately, the connection between diet and obstructive sleep apnea is a reminder of the broader implications our food choices have on our health. By staying informed and making conscious dietary decisions, we can take proactive steps to safeguard our sleep and, by extension, our long-term health. As research continues to unveil the ties between nutrition and sleep disorders, it becomes increasingly clear that the path to better sleep may very well be through our stomachs.