How Food Can Help Sleep Apnea


When people think of treating sleep apnea, people rarely think about their diets. However, the foods that you consume every day actually play a large role in the severity of your sleep apnea symptoms, including snoring and sleepiness. A change in your diet can lead to noticeable changes not just in your sleep, but also in your mood, physical health and mental health. In this article, we first discuss how exactly diet and sleep apnea are related in the first place; then, we’ll explore which foods to choose, and which foods you should avoid.

How are diet and sleep apnea related?

There is a variety of reasons that people tend to develop Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), including:

  • Natural causes. Being born with a large tongue, large tonsils, or even a larger neck circumference can make it easier for your upper airway to be blocked.
  • Family history. Having family members who have sleep apnea or other sleep disorders could increase your risk of developing OSA.
  • Underlying health conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, having type 2 diabetes, chronically high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, lung diseases like asthma, or heart disease are just some of the medical conditions that can leave you at risk for OSA.

Do these symptoms sounds familiar?

If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms before, you may have sleep apnea. Luckily, you can get tested from your own bed with our Home Sleep Test!

Although any one of these reasons can lead to the development of OSA, being diagnosed with obesity is one of the strongest risk factors. Carrying excess weight can lead to a build up in fat tissue around the abdomen, torso and, most pressingly, the neck region. The buildup of tissue around the neck puts pressure on the muscles and tissue around the upper airway, making it more prone to collapse when your muscles are relaxed during sleep. According to a study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, up to 60% of individuals with excess weight are believed to suffer from OSA, demonstrating a strong correlation between the two factors.

While limiting extra calories is important, an equally important factor in reducing the severity of your symptoms is the quality of foods in a diet. OSA is caused by the obstruction of your upper airway by muscles and tissue, like your tongue or tonsils. If your neck region is inflamed, this can make your throat narrower, making it easier for it to become obstructed during sleep. So, eating inflammatory foods can exacerbate your symptoms. In addition, eating high amounts of saturated fats and some proteins can put people at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, increasing their sleep apnea severity in the process.

On the flip side, having foods rich in vitamins, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, omega-3 fatty acids, and other important nutrients can not only improve sleep apnea symptoms, but also your overall health. With all that being said, let’s first talk about foods you should add into your diet.

Best Foods to Reduce Sleep Apnea Severity

Seafood. Fatty fish like salmon, swordfish and tuna are high in omega-3’s, essential fatty acids that, among many other benefits, have anti-inflammatory effects. Reducing inflammation can release some of the pressure around the upper airway, making for a more efficient sleep.

Nuts. When it gets dark, your brain produces a hormone called melatonin to help induce sleep. In a study published in Nutrients Journal, pistachios, almonds and walnuts contained the highest amounts of melatonin of any plant food.

Whole grains. Like nuts, whole grains like rice, barley and oats have high amounts of melatonin, which can aid in your sleep.

Chicken or Turkey. Melatonin is actually converted from another chemical known as serotonin. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to properly regulate our mood or sleep cycle. Serotonin is derived from an amino acid known as tryptophan, which is commonly found in high protein foods, most notably chicken and turkey.

Dairy products. For all of the cheese lovers out there, you’re in luck! Milk and cheese, in addition to being high in calcium, are rich in both melatonin and tryptophan, making them incredibly useful in getting a good night’s sleep.

Legumes. Edamame, lentils and pinto beans are incredibly high in B vitamins, which, just like tryptophan, boost the production of serotonin, increasing the amount of melatonin in the body.

Now that we’ve discussed the foods that can help sleep, we should discuss what types of food those with OSA should avoid.

Foods to Avoid

High saturated fat. Foods like steak, pork chops and sausages are all high in saturated fatty acids, which can cause inflammation, worsening symptoms. Furthermore, in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, a high-fat diet resulted in less deep sleep, which can cause daytime sleepiness.

Processed foods high in sugar. While sugar and carbs are a necessary part of a healthy diet, not all carbohydrates are created equal. In that same study, researchers found diets with high amounts of refined sugar resulted in frequent sleep disruptions due to the large imbalance of blood glucose levels that persisted throughout the night. In addition, processed foods, like hot dogs and packaged cookies, raise cholesterol levels, creating a whole host of other issues, including breathing problems.

Caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is well-known to keep people awake; so try to avoid drinking coffee or soda before bedtime. Similarly, alcohol, even if it may make you drowsy, disrupts your sleep cycle since the breakdown of the alcohol by your liver is a relatively slow process.

Having a Long-Term Plan

While going to a grocery store to buy melatonin-rich foods may help ease the sleep apnea symptoms tonight, it’s important to step back and look at the big picture. Changing a diet is not just about what is eaten in a day; rather, it is about what, when and how much we eat over the course of months and eventually years. Instead of fixating on which foods help sleep, it may be better to view diet as the formation of a healthy habit.

Although altering one’s diet can be useful in OSA management, it should not serve as the only treatment option; diet changes need to be made in tandem with larger lifestyle changes to reach its maximum potential. Performing some type of physical activity a few times a week and using your continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) or other oral appliance nightly on top of making diet changes can result in an incredibly helpful and sustainable sleep apnea treatment.

About the Author

Dr. Nicholas Walter, MD is a Geriatric Medicine Specialist in Phoenix, AZ who has over 7 years of experience in the medical field. He graduated from the School of Radiologic Technology at Saint Josephs Medical School in 2013. He is affiliated with Banner Boswell Medical Center.

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