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How is ultra-processed food linked to sleep apnea?

Research suggests that diet and lifestyle changes can help reduce sleep apnea — even if you don’t lose weight

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An “ultra-processed” lunch including brand-name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade.

This undated photo provided by the National Institutes of Health in June 2019 shows an “ultra-processed” lunch including brand-name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade.

Paule Joseph, Shavonne Pocock, NIH via Associated Press

As many as 1 in 5 people globally struggle with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that temporarily cuts off breathing as one sleeps, leading to poor sleep quality and potentially dangerous health complications.

Obesity is a well-known risk factor. But research suggests that what people consume may be part of the problem — and a strong potential solution to poor sleep quality, including but not limited to sleep apnea.

As The Washington Post reports, “A growing body of research suggests that improving your eating habits by cutting out ultra-processed foods, cutting back on alcohol and increasing your daily steps can reduce symptoms of sleep apnea and potentially even eliminate it.”

The article notes that those changes can reduce sleep apnea even if those who have it don’t lose weight.

The Mayo Clinic says signs of obstructive sleep apnea include being sleepy during the day, snoring loudly, “abrupt awakening” with choking or gulping in air, greeting morning with a dry mouth or sore throat, a morning headache, challenges concentrating and mood changes, among others. Studies have linked sleep apnea to high blood pressure and an elevated risk of heart disease and diabetes, among other risks.

Why ultra-processed food matters

The world eats a lot of ultra-processed foods, a category that includes about 60% of the typical American diet’s calories, according to the journal BMJ Open. And it’s been that way for at least a decade. A 2010 study found that ultra-processed foods contribute nearly 90% of the energy intake from added sugars. And it noted that “the content of added sugars in ultra-processed foods (21.1% of calories) was eightfold higher than in processed foods (2.4%) and fivefold higher than in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients grouped together (3.7%).”

One way to cut back on sugars that aren’t good for you is to reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods.

The Washington Post separately explained what falls into that category: “Every year, food companies introduce thousands of new ultra-processed foods with an endless variety of flavors and ingredients. These products deliver potent combinations of fat, sugar, sodium and artificial flavors. They are what scientists call hyper-palatable: Irresistible, easy to overeat, and capable of hijacking the brain’s reward system and provoking powerful cravings.”

Think sugary cereals, ready-made muffins, sweetened yogurts, soft drinks and energy drinks, among others, per the Post.

Research has repeatedly linked those ultra-processed foods to health complications that are in some cases similar to the risks posed by sleep apnea, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and colon cancer.

A study in The BMJ journal said adults with the “lowest quality diet” and the most ultra-processed food consumption “were at the highest risk for all-cause and cardiovascular mortality.”

The study, published in July, said that a “significant proportion of the higher mortality risk associated with an elevated intake of nutrient-poor foods was explained by a high degree of food processing. In contrast, the relation between a high ultra-processed food intake and mortality was not explained by the poor quality of these foods.”

Eat well and close to natural

Eating foods in their close-to-natural form is healthier. The Post cites a study published in JAMA Open Network that recruited dozens of overweight men who had sleep apnea and were treated with a CPAP machine, which delivers continuous positive air pressure. Half of them were taught how to eat better, including eating fruits, vegetables, olive oil, poultry, seafood, eggs and herbs.

“It wasn’t a restrictive, low-calorie diet,” lead author Almudena Carneiro-Barrera, a researcher at Loyola University Andalusia in Spain, told The Washington Post. “We just taught them how to eat a healthy diet.”

They were also urged to reduce their alcohol intake and stop smoking. The other group was left alone.

After two months, those with healthier habits had a 51% reduction in the number of hourly apnea episodes during sleep. “And 45% no longer needed their CPAP machines,” the Post reported.

Benefits of good sleep

Even without worrying about apnea, sleep is important. The government’s MyHealthfinder says the benefits of getting an adequate amount of high-quality sleep are significant: People who enjoy good sleep enjoy better health, get sick less often, maintain their weight at a healthier level, have reduced stress, perform cognitively at a higher level that’s good for work and school and more. For instance, good sleep hygiene contributes to the health of one’s relationships and helps people avoid both poor decisions and injuries, the government reports.

Good sleep is also a hedge that lowers the risk of some of those previously noted health challenges, including heart disease, diabetes and stress-related ills.