Lifestyle Changes to Treat Sleep Apnea

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2023

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder. With obstructive sleep apnea, tissues in your throat relax and block the upper airway during sleep. This can restrict or stop breathing. The choking sounds, snorts, or gasps the person makes are the body’s way of getting air.1

The good news is that obstructive sleep apnea can be treated with a variety of lifestyle changes. Other treatments may also be needed, such as devices to help with breathing and surgery. In fact, lifestyle changes alone can improve or eliminate mild sleep apnea, or make moderate to severe sleep apnea better. You may need to try several lifestyle changes and devices to see what combination of therapies work best for you.

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Sleep apnea and weight loss, exercise

Carrying extra pounds greatly increases the risk of developing sleep apnea. While a CPAP machine treats sleep apnea, losing weight may cure it or make it much better in some people. People who are overweight may have a large neck or tongue with extra tissue that blocks the airway or more narrow airways. A large neck is considered to be 17 inches around at the Adam’s apple in men and 16 inches for women.1,2

Studies have found that weight loss reduces daytime sleepiness, improves sleep quality, and reduces high blood pressure. Weight loss surgery appears to have similar results. Exercise alone can improve sleep apnea symptoms, even without weight loss.1,2

Changes to sleep position

Some people find that their sleep apnea only occurs, or gets worse, when they sleep on their back. Pillows placed along the back may help keep the person on their side during sleep. You can also buy special pillows for this.2-4

There are also wearable sensors that vibrate when the person rolls onto their back. This vibration is gentle enough to make the person roll onto their side without waking them.2-4

Sleep apnea and avoiding alcohol

Adult beverages may be fun, but alcohol also makes muscles in the upper airway relax, which causes sleep apnea or make it worse. Alcohol also leads to waking up often in the night as the body processes the alcohol. People with untreated sleep apnea should avoid alcohol altogether, even during the daytime.1-4

Medicines to avoid with sleep apnea

Certain prescription drugs are known to aggravate sleep apnea. Most are sedating drugs, such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, antiepileptics, antihistamines, opioids, and certain antidepressants. Antidepressants can cause weight gain or make restless legs syndrome worse. This can make both daytime sleepiness and sleep apnea worse.2

Sleep apnea and quitting smoking

Smokers are 3 times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than people who have never smoked. Cigarette smoke makes tissues in the upper airways swell and can increase fluid retention, which makes sleep apnea worse.1,2,5

Safety precautions for sleep apnea

People with severe sleep apnea who have not yet gotten better with treatment may need to take extra precautions. This includes avoiding driving or operating heavy machinery.2,4