Plant-Based Diet Prevents Sleep Apnea, Study Says

Following a healthy, plant-based diet can significantly reduce the risk of developing sleep apnea, a new study has found.

Nearly one billion people suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — the most common form of sleep apnea — worldwide, but new research has found that consuming a diet rich in healthy plant-based foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes can act as an effective preventative measure.

The study, published in ERJ Open Research, used dietary data from 14,210 people who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES), finding that those who ate the highest intake of plant-based foods had 19% lower odds of developing sleep apnea than those who had the lowest intake.

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It also found the impact of this kind of diet to be more effective at reducing risks for men than for women — a factor the authors said points to a need for more personalized dietary interventions.

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts while an individual sleeps, causing intense snoring that may include choking or snorting noises. The condition is known to triple the risk of cardiometabolic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as cardiac mortality.

Many people with OSA use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, which consists of a hose connected to a mask or nosepiece that delivers steady air pressure while the person sleeps.

The main risk factor for OSA is obesity, as well as having a large neck circumference, smoking, drinking, and sleeping on one’s back. Treatment to reduce the severity of the condition typically includes lifestyle modifications such as weight loss through exercise and diet.

“Most dietary intervention studies focused on OSA have emphasized weight reduction via caloric restriction and specific dietary elements, rather than holistic dietary patterns,” the study authors wrote.

Study participants reported everything they ate over the course of 24 hours, and researchers then separated the responses into healthy plant-based diets (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee), unhealthy plant-based diets (refined grains, potatoes, sugar-sweetened drinks, sweets, desserts, and salty foods), and animal foods (animal fat, dairy, eggs, fish or seafood, meat, miscellaneous animal foods).

Respondents also answered questions to determine their likelihood of experiencing OSA.

The researchers not only determined that the risk of OSA was roughly one fifth less for those eating the most plant-focused diets, but that individuals consuming a mostly vegetarian diet also faced a reduced risk. Individuals who consumed high amounts of foods in the unhealthy plant-based category, however, faced a 22% increased risk than those who didn’t eat as much of these foods.

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While they were not able to determine precisely why a healthy plant-based diet has this impact on OSA risk, the authors suggest it could be attributed to reduced inflammation and a lower risk of obesity.

Healthy, plant-based diets feature many anti-inflammatory components, such as high levels of antioxidant nutrients like vitamins C and E, high levels of B vitamins, and low levels of detrimental dietary factors such as nitrates and nitrites.

“The evidence presented in this study highlights the significant influence of plant-based diets on OSA risk, with particular emphasis on the protective role of diets like the healthy plant-based diet,” the authors wrote. “Such findings prompt consideration for re-evaluation of dietary recommendations, to a shift towards emphasizing healthy plant-based diets that are rich in anti-inflammatory components and antioxidant nutrients and low in harmful dietary factors.”

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