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Plant-based diet may prevent obstructive sleep apnea

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
Those who eat a healthy plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts are less likely to suffer sleep apnea, according to a recent study. Photo by RitaE/Pixabay
Those who eat a healthy plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts are less likely to suffer sleep apnea, according to a recent study. Photo by RitaE/Pixabay

A person's diet can influence their risk of obstructive sleep apnea, a new study says.

Those who eat a healthy plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts are less likely to suffer sleep apnea, according to findings published Tuesday in the journal ERJ Open Research.

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On the other hand, people who eat more meat or indulge in unhealthy vegetarian diets high in sugar, carbs and salt are more at risk for sleep apnea.

"These results highlight the importance of the quality of our diet in managing the risk of OSA [obstructive sleep apnea]," said lead researcher Yohannes Melaku, from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

People with sleep apnea often snore loudly and their breathing starts and stops during the night, causing regular brief wakefulness, researchers explained in background notes.

Sleep apnea can increase a person's risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, researchers said.

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For this study, the team analyzed responses from more than 14,000 participants in a regular U.S. survey on health and nutrition.

This is the first large-scale analysis investigating the link between diet and sleep apnea, Melaku said.

"There's a gap in our knowledge of how overall dietary patterns affect OSA risk," Melaku said in a journal news release. "With this study, we wanted to address that gap and explore the association between different types of plant-based diets and the risk of OSA."

People with diets highest in plant-based foods were 19% less likely to have sleep apnea compared to those with the lowest amounts of plant-based foods in their diet.

However, people who ate a diet high in unhealthy plant-based foods had a 22% elevated risk than those not indulging in refined grains, potatoes, sugary drinks, sweets, desserts and salty foods, results showed.

A plant-based diet worked more powerfully to lower sleep apnea risk in men, the researchers noted. At the same time, an unhealthy plant-based diet caused a bigger increase in women's risk for sleep apnea.

"It's important to note these sex differences because they underscore the need for personalized dietary interventions for people with OSA," Melaku said.

The study could not say exactly why a plant-based diet reduces risk of sleep apnea, Melaku said.

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"It could be that a healthy plant-based diet reduces inflammation and obesity. These are key factors in OSA risk," Melaku speculated. "Diets rich in anti-inflammatory components and antioxidants, and low in harmful dietary elements, can influence fat mass, inflammation and even muscle tone, all of which are relevant to OSA risk."

Researchers now plan to study the links between ultra-processed foods and sleep apnea risk, as well as the long-term interactions between diet and sleep apnea.

"The findings of this study propose that modifying our diet might be beneficial in managing or avoiding OSA," said Dr. Sophia Schiza, head of the European Respiratory society's assembly on sleep disordered breathing.

"Being aware that incorporating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains into our diet while minimizing the consumption of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks can greatly improve our overall health. We need to make it as easy as possible for everyone to adopt a healthy diet," said Schiza, an assistant professor of respiratory medicine with the University of Crete in Greece who was not involved in the study.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic has more on sleep apnea.

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