Sleep apnea is a serious condition affecting approximately 39 million US adults. This disorder causes interrupted breathing during sleep, leading to restless nights and tired days. Recently, researchers have found that medications such as Ozempic (used for managing type 2 diabetes), Zepbound and Wegovy ( both prescribed for weight loss), may offer a new solution for those suffering from sleep apnea. In this article, you will learn about the latest research on these medications, how they might improve sleep apnea symptoms, and what this means for the future of sleep apnea treatment.

Key Takeaways

  • Weight loss drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy, and Zepbound might help treat sleep apnea by reducing obesity and improving sleep quality. For example, GLP-1 receptor agonists like these can decrease the frequency of sleep apnea events by up to 63%.
  • Obesity is a significant factor in sleep apnea, with studies showing that for every 10% increase in body weight, the risk of developing sleep apnea increases six-fold.
  • Research indicates that around 70% of adults with sleep apnea are also obese, highlighting the critical role of weight management in treating this condition.
  • GLP-1 drugs not only aid in weight loss but also improve sleep quality by reducing fat deposits around the throat, leading to fewer interruptions in breathing during sleep.
  • While these medications are primarily prescribed for diabetes and weight loss, they are not yet officially approved for sleep apnea treatment, though ongoing research and clinical trials could change this in the future.
  • Weight loss can significantly improve sleep apnea symptoms, and medications like Ozempic, Wegovy, and Zepbound are showing promise as potential treatment options, with companies like Eli Lilly seeking FDA approval for these new indications.

The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Obesity

The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Obesity

Sleep apnea is a disorder where a person’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA).

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe. This blockage can be due to various factors, including the relaxation of throat muscles, an oversized tongue, or excess fatty tissue in the throat area.
  • Central Sleep Apnea (CSA): Unlike OSA, CSA happens because the brain fails to send the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing. This type is less common and is often associated with certain medical conditions affecting the brainstem.

Some of the common symptoms and signs include:

  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Dry mouth
  • Daytime fatigue and irritability

Obesity is a significant contributor to obstructive sleep apnea. One of the main reasons is that excess fat deposits can develop in the upper respiratory tract. These fat deposits, particularly around the neck and throat, can block the airways during sleep, making it difficult for air to flow smoothly. This blockage can cause frequent interruptions in breathing, known as apneas, which characterize the condition.

Several studies have highlighted this connection between obesity and sleep apnea. For instance, research found that the prevalence of sleep apnea is significantly higher among individuals with higher body mass index (BMI). According to the study, for every 10% increase in body weight, there is a six-fold increase in the risk of developing sleep apnea. These findings underline the importance of addressing obesity as a critical factor in managing sleep apnea.

Additionally, a indicate that about 70% of adults with sleep apnea are obese. This correlation underscores the need for effective weight management strategies as a means to potentially reduce the incidence and severity of sleep apnea.

Does Weight Loss Cure Sleep Apnea?

Weight loss is a well-established approach to treating obstructive sleep apnea, especially since obesity is a major risk factor for the condition. Traditional methods to achieve weight loss typically include diet and exercise. A healthy, balanced diet that reduces calorie intake can help individuals shed excess pounds, while regular physical activity can boost metabolism and promote weight loss.

For many people, adopting a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, combined with regular exercise such as walking, jogging, or cycling, can lead to significant weight loss. This reduction in body weight can decrease the fat deposits around the upper respiratory tract, reducing airway obstruction and alleviating sleep apnea symptoms.

In more severe cases of obesity, where diet and exercise alone might not be sufficient, surgical options can be considered. Bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy, has been shown to result in substantial weight loss and, consequently, a marked improvement in sleep apnea symptoms. Studies have indicated that weight loss surgeries can lead to a significant reduction in the number of apneas experienced during sleep, often eliminating the need for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy in many patients.

The benefits of weight loss on sleep apnea symptoms are well-documented. Losing weight can reduce the frequency and severity of apneas, improve sleep quality, decrease daytime sleepiness, and enhance overall respiratory function during sleep. These improvements occur because weight loss lessens the physical obstruction in the airways, making it easier to breathe while sleeping.

Could Weight Loss Drugs Treat Sleep Apnea?

Weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy have recently gained attention for their potential to treat sleep apnea by helping individuals lose weight. These medications have shown promising results in reducing weight, which, in turn, may alleviate sleep apnea symptoms.

Ozempic and Wegovy are both glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists. They work by mimicking the GLP-1 hormone, which regulates appetite and food intake. These drugs slow down the movement of food through the stomach, increase feelings of fullness, and reduce hunger, leading to weight loss. By decreasing body weight, these medications can reduce the fat deposits around the upper respiratory tract, potentially easing the airway obstruction that causes sleep apnea.

Ozempic is approved for managing type 2 diabetes and has been found to aid in weight loss as a secondary benefit. Wegovy, on the other hand, is specifically approved for chronic weight management in adults with obesity or overweight conditions with at least one weight-related condition (such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol). A study found that after 24 weeks of GLP-1, a patient’s AHI decreased significantly from 27 episodes per hour to 7.1 episodes per hour.

In addition to Ozempic and Wegovy, other weight loss medications, such as Zepbound, have also shown promise in treating obesity and potentially improving sleep apnea symptoms. In clinical trials, users experienced an average reduction of 63% in the number of sleep apnea events (about 30 fewer events per hour). Tirzepatide works similarly by regulating blood sugar levels and reducing appetite, leading to substantial weight loss.

Drugs that are commonly used for weight loss, such as Ozempic and Wegovy, have shown promise in helping patients with sleep apnea by addressing obesity, which is a major contributing factor to this condition.” – Dr Jen Ashton

On Good Morning America, Dr. Jennifer Ashton discusses the benefits of other GLP-1 agonists like Mounjaro for sleep apnea treatment, highlighting a phase three clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine. She mentions, “There’s an obesity medication that might help with sleep apnea… this latest study published in pretty much the gold standard medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, phase three clinical trial, this drug, the brand name drug Mounjaro versus placebo head-to-head phase 3 clinical trials in people with obstructive sleep apnea.” 

She also mentions that “Over basically a year-long study period, the people who were on this drug had a significant improvement. Of course, they lost weight, but their sleep apnea improved dramatically in terms of the frequency of these episodes of not breathing and also the severity.

Dr. Ashton also notes the importance of balancing medication risks with benefits, stating, “important to understand that generally, this study found very low side effects … but there are risks with any medication.

Additional Benefits of Weight Loss Drugs

Weight Loss Pens

Weight Loss Drugs, such as Ozempic, Wegovy, and Zepbound, also offer additional benefits, including improved sleep quality. By reducing body weight, GLP-1 drugs can help alleviate sleep apnea, leading to fewer interruptions in breathing during sleep. This improvement can result in more restful and uninterrupted sleep.

Beyond their effects on weight, GLP-1 medications might influence sleep through central mechanisms in the brain. GLP-1 receptors exist in various brain regions, including the hypothalamus, which regulates sleep-wake cycles. Activation of these receptors can modulate the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that influence sleep.

For instance, GLP-1 medications may increase melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, and reduce orexin, a neurotransmitter that promotes wakefulness. The research found that GLP-1 receptor agonists could enhance non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, the deep sleep stage essential for physical restoration. This suggests that GLP-1 drugs directly improve sleep architecture, offering benefits beyond weight loss and metabolic control. As research continues, these drugs may become necessary in managing sleep-related disorders like sleep apnea.

In addition to better sleep, GLP-1 medications have been associated with other health benefits, such as better blood sugar control, reduced blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health. These benefits are significant for individuals with obesity and diabetes, who are at higher risk for these conditions.

Can Doctors Prescribe Weight Loss Drugs for Sleep Apnea Now?

Doctors form with sleep apnea title

Currently, medical professionals primarily prescribe GLP-1 medications like Ozempic, Wegovy, and Zepbound for managing type 2 diabetes and aiding in weight loss. While there is an increasing interest in their potential to treat sleep apnea, GLP-1 medications are not officially recommended or approved specifically for sleep apnea treatment. Some doctors might consider using them off-label for patients who are obese and also have sleep apnea, recognizing the potential benefits that come with weight reduction. However, this use is based on individual clinical judgment rather than established medical guidelines.

The use of GLP-1 medications for sleep apnea requires further investigation through rigorous clinical trials. These trials are essential to determine the efficacy and safety of GLP-1 drugs specifically for sleep apnea treatment. Such research would provide the necessary data to seek FDA approval for this new indication. Currently, Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company behind the GLP-1 medication Zepbound, has expressed interest in asking the FDA to approve their weight loss drug for sleep apnea. This move highlights the potential for GLP-1 drugs to become a recognized treatment option for sleep apnea in the future.

Until these medications receive specific approval for sleep apnea, the primary focus remains on their approved uses for diabetes and weight management. More research and clinical trials will be critical in providing the evidence needed to expand their use to officially include sleep apnea treatment.

Final Thoughts

Obesity is a major cause of obstructive sleep apnea, and weight loss is a proven method to alleviate its symptoms. Weight loss drugs such as Ozempic, Wegovy, and Zepbound, which help reduce body weight, show promise in potentially treating sleep apnea. Research indicates these drugs can improve sleep quality by reducing the fat deposits around the upper respiratory tract and possibly influencing sleep mechanisms in the brain. While they are not yet officially approved for sleep apnea, ongoing studies and efforts by companies like Eli Lilly to seek FDA approval suggest a promising future. This could provide a new, effective option for the millions of people struggling with this condition.

FAQs About Weight Loss Drugs And Sleep Apnea

Will my sleep apnea go away if I lose weight?

Losing weight can help reduce or even eliminate sleep apnea symptoms in some people. Excess weight, especially around the neck, can increase the risk of airway obstruction during sleep. By losing weight, you can reduce this risk.

Can sleep apnea be cured naturally

Natural ways to manage sleep apnea include:

  • Losing weight
  • Sleeping on your side instead of your back
  • Avoiding alcohol and smoking
  • Using a humidifier to keep the airways open
  • Practicing throat exercises to strengthen the muscles around the airway

Can sleep apnea be cured?

Sleep apnea might not be completely cured, but its symptoms can be managed and reduced with treatment and lifestyle changes such as weight loss, using a CPAP machine, and avoiding alcohol.

What is the best medication for sleep apnea?

There isn’t a specific medication to cure sleep apnea. Treatment typically involves lifestyle changes, CPAP machines, and in some cases, oral appliances or surgery. Some people may use medications to manage related conditions like nasal congestion or allergies.

Can doctors prescribe weight loss drugs for sleep apnea?

Doctors may prescribe weight loss drugs off-label for sleep apnea if they believe the weight loss will help, but these drugs are not specifically approved for this use.

Is tirzepatide currently approved for sleep apnea?

No, it is not yet approved for sleep apnea but is under consideration for FDA approval.

When does Eli Lilly plan to submit tirzepatide for FDA approval for sleep apnea?

Eli Lilly plans to submit the information to the FDA mid-2024.

How does tirzepatide compare to CPAP machines?

Tirzepatide may be a good alternative for people who can’t use CPAP or want to improve the effectiveness of their CPAP therapy.

Does tirzepatide work for patients already using PAP therapy?

Yes, even patients using PAP therapy saw a reduction in sleep apnea events when taking tirzepatide.

What is the significance of the hypothalamus in sleep regulation?

The hypothalamus regulates sleep-wake cycles and can be influenced by GLP-1 medications, potentially improving sleep quality.

Are there any approved drugs for sleep apnea?

Currently, there are no FDA-approved drugs specifically for treating sleep apnea. While acetazolamide, medroxyprogesterone, fluoxetine, and protriptyline have been used to treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), they are not recommended. However, modafinil is FDA-approved to help manage residual daytime sleepiness in patients who still feel sleepy despite optimal use of CPAP therapy.

Sources

Ling, V., Wu, C., & Stiles, S. (2024, May 8). Sleep apnea statistics and facts you should know. NCOA Adviser. Retrieved June 26, 2024, from https://www.ncoa.org/adviser/sleep/sleep-apnea-statistics/

Sultana, R., Sissoho, F., Kaushik, V. P., & Raji, M. A. (2024). The impact of glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonists on obstructive sleep apnoea: A scoping review. Pharmacy (Basel), 12(1), 11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10801460/

Pacheco, D., & DeBanto, J. (2024, April 30). How weight affects sleep apnea. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-apnea/weight-loss-and-sleep-apnea

Peppard, P. E., Young, T., Palta, M., Dempsey, J., & Skatrud, J. (2003). Obesity, sleep apnea, and hypertension. Hypertension, 42(6), 1067-1074.https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.hyp.0000101686.98973.a3#

Eli Lilly and Company. (n.d.). Tirzepatide reduced sleep apnea severity by up to nearly two-thirds in adults with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and obesity. PR Newswire. Retrieved June 26, 2024, from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/tirzepatide-reduced-sleep-apnea-severity-by-up-to-nearly-two-thirds-in-adults-with-obstructive-sleep-apnea-osa-and-obesity-302118929.html

Redline, S., Malhotra, A., Grunstein, R. R., Fietze, I., Weaver, T. E., Azarbarzin, A., & Sands, S. A. (2024). Tirzepatide for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea and obesity. New England Journal of Medicine.https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2404881