Tongue Fat Loss Improves Sleep Apnoea, Finds Study

Grant Boone
January 13, 2020

January 10, 2020─Weight loss in obese patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) appears to improve sleep apnea primarily by reducing tongue fat, according to new research published online in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Dr. Richard Schwab, chief of sleep medicine, said: "Most clinicians, and even experts in the world of sleep apnea, have generally not focused on fat in the tongue to treat 'Sleep Apnea".

According to scientists, tongue fat can be a potential therapeutic target for improving sleep apnea. If left untreated, this condition can cause high blood pressure, heart problems, tissue damage, and more. While obesity is the main risk factor for developing sleep apnea, the scientists said there are other causes, such as having large tonsils or a recessed jaw.

The team found that obese people who also have obstructive sleep apnea were more likely to have "significantly larger tongues" and higher amounts of tongue fat in comparison to obese people who didn't have sleep apnea. Through either lifestyle modifications or surgery, the study participants lost about 10% of their overall body weight over the course of six months.

To understand how weight loss affected the upper airway and abdominal fat, the researchers assessed Pearson's correlations between percent changes in weight and anatomical structures. New research has now zeroed in on the finer details of this physiological effect, revealing that a reduction of fat in the tongue appears key to lessening sleep apnea's symptoms.

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According to the study, the weight loss also resulted in a reduction in the pterygoid muscle - a jaw muscle that controls chewing and the pharyngeal side wall - on the sides of the airways. Both these changes also improved OSA, but not to the same extent as reduced tongue fat.

"If we can show that [ultrasound] can do this, we can potentially do it on every person who has a sleep study to get a lot of data on the effect of tongue size and tongue fat, and its relationship to OSA", he said.

Obstructive sleep apnea refers to a condition in which one's airflow is temporarily blocked during sleep, preventing the person from breathing properly. His research team compared the upper airway anatomy of Chinese and Icelandic patients with sleep apnea, and found that, compared to Icelandic patients of similar age, gender, and symptoms, Chinese patients had smaller airways and soft tissues, but bigger soft palate volume with more bone restrictions.

The study was supported by the NIH. The ATS publishes three journals, the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology and the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

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