Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a potentially serious sleep disorder that causes one's breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep, is normally caused by old age, obesity, decreased muscle tone and a brain injury, among others.

A new study now adds another causative factor -- a fat tongue.

The study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine argues having a fat tongue might be a key reason people with OSA snore, choke, gasp or stop breathing periodically when asleep. OSA occurs when one's throat muscles intermittently relax and block one's airway during sleep.

Snoring is a noticeable sign of OSA. In adults, excessive daytime sleepiness is the hallmark symptom of OSA. More than 30 million people (almost a fourth of the population) have OSA in the USA.

OSA is dangerous to one's health. Doctors say it can damage the brain's white matter, increase blood pressure, contribute to depression and boost the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

A previous study by Penn Medicine sleep specialist Dr. Richard Schwab, who authored the new study, and his team found obese people with OSA had considerably larger tongues with higher percentages of tongue fat than obese people without the condition. The new study found a person can trim down his fatty tongue while you lose overall body fat.

"The question then was if you reduce the fat in your tongue, does that improve your sleep apnea? And the answer from our paper is 'yes,'" Dr. Schwab said.

In the new study, researchers used MRI imaging to measure the effect on upper airways of a 10 percent weight loss in 67 obese patients. The images revealed reducing tongue fat was the primary reason OSA scores improved by 31 percent.

"In fact, the more tongue fat you lost, the more your apnea improved," Dr. Schwab added.

The study's findings could lead to new avenues of treatment focused on reducing tongue size. Dr. Schwab pointed out among these treatments are cold sculpting being used to eliminate stomach fat. He noted more research is needed to determine if certain diets might accelerate fat loss in the tongue. Studies are also needed to reveal if there are certain exercises that help reduce tongue fat.

Sleep Apnea
Fixing sleep apnea benefits children of all IQs. Daniel; CC by 2.0

According to Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a sleep specialist at Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study, the study shows reducing excess fat in general can reduce tongue size.

"What are going to be things that could block or clog or upper airways? It's going to be the tonsils, the uvula, the soft palate and the tongue," Dr. Dasgupta said.