A Plant-Based Diet Reduces Sleep Apnea Risk by 19 Percent, Study Finds: "These Are Key Factors"

New research published in the journal ERJ Open Research has some food for thought for anyone tossing and turning at night because of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—a condition causing loud snoring and frequent waking as a result of paused breathing. The findings suggest a plant-based diet filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts might help keep OSA at bay. On the flip side, indulging in too many sugary drinks and snacks could increase the risk of developing this sleep-disrupting condition.

Yohannes Melaku, MD, from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, led the research. He and his team took a deep dive into how what we eat might just be linked to OSA, a topic not widely explored until now.

“Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea may stem from genetics or behavior, including diet,” Melaku said in a statement. “Previous research has primarily focused on the impact of calorie restriction, specific dietary elements, and weight loss. There’s a gap in our knowledge of how overall dietary patterns affect OSA risk. 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.”

The study looked at the eating habits of more than 14,000 people from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants detailed everything they ate in 24 hours, which researchers then categorized into three types of diets: one high in healthy plant-based foods, one heavy on animal products, and one filled with less-than-ideal plant-based items like refined grains and sugary treats.

According to the findings, those who ate a plant-packed diet were 19-percent less likely to struggle with OSA than those with less green plates. But, for those who favored a diet high in sugary and refined plant-based foods, the risk of OSA jumped by 22 percent. The study also noticed that men and women reacted a bit differently to these diets in terms of OSA risk.

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Melaku pointed out that the results highlight the importance of the quality of our diet in managing the risk of OSA. “It’s important to note these sex differences because they underscore the need for personalized dietary interventions for people with OSA,” he said.

Looking ahead, the team says it wants to explore how ultra-processed foods might affect OSA risk and to keep an eye on the long-term relationship between what we eat and our sleep health.

Professor Sophia Schiza, a sleep expert from the University of Crete, Greece, who wasn’t involved in the study, emphasizes the potential of diet changes to improve or even prevent OSA. “The findings of this study propose that modifying our diet might be beneficial in managing or avoiding OSA. 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,” she advises, suggesting simple dietary shifts could make a big difference in our sleep quality and overall well-being.

“This research doesn’t tell us why diet is important, but it could be that a healthy plant-based diet reduces inflammation and obesity,” Melaku says. “These are key factors in OSA risk. 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.”

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