Weight loss and exercise are commonly recommended approaches for treating sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder that manifests symptoms like loud snoring. However, a new study found that apart from calorie restriction and weight loss, an individual's diet can also play a role in influencing the risk of sleep apnea.

According to the study published in the journal ERJ Open Research, people who eat a healthy plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts have a 19% less chance of having sleep apnea compared to those who eat an unhealthy diet.

"These results highlight the importance of the quality of our diet in managing the risk of OSA [obstructive sleep apnea]," said lead researcher Yohannes Melaku.

Sleep apnea leads to frequent interruptions in breathing during sleep, resulting in symptoms such as snoring, fatigue, daytime sleepiness, irritability, and occasionally, insomnia. More than 30 million U.S. adults have sleep apnea.

There are two types of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea(CSA), which arises from problems in how the brain regulates breathing during sleep, and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), caused by conditions that obstruct the airflow through the upper airways during sleep.

Apart from lifestyle changes, health practitioners may recommend the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) for people with moderate to severe sleep apnea. CPAP is a machine that delivers air pressure through a mask while sleeping. Untreated sleep apnea can raise the risk of health conditions including type 2 diabetes, blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease.

"Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea may stem from genetics or behavior, including diet. 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," Melaku said in a news release.

The study was based on data from more than 14,000 individuals who were part of the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The researchers examined the diet of the participants, and based on what they ate during the last 24 hours, they were categorized into three groups: a healthy plant-based diet (comprising whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee), a diet rich in animal foods (involving high intake of animal fat, dairy, eggs, fish or seafood, and meat), and an unhealthy plant-based diet characterized by the consumption of refined grains, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets, desserts, and salty foods.

Participants were also asked if they were experiencing obstructive sleep apnea.

"People with diets highest in plant-based food were 19% less likely to be suffering with OSA, compared with those eating diets lowest in plant-based food. Those eating a largely vegetarian diet were also at a lower risk. However, people eating a diet high in unhealthy plant-based foods were at a 22% higher risk, compared to those eating low amounts of these foods," the news release stated.

The researchers observed that the correlation between a plant-based diet and the risk of sleep apnea is more pronounced in men, while an unhealthy plant-based diet has a more significant impact on women's risk.

"These 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," Melaku said.

Although the study has not examined the mechanism by which the diet influences sleep apnea risk, researchers believe that the antioxidants in a plant-based diet and anti-inflammatory properties may be the factors that help in reducing inflammation and obesity, the risk factors of sleep apnea.