How To Prevent Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that stops and restarts your breathing while you sleep, causing your airway to collapse or become blocked. As a result, you may sleep less soundly and wake up many times throughout the night.

The cause of sleep apnea has much to do with your anatomy—or the way your body is structured. Some people may have a problem with their neck or jaw, have fat deposits that narrow their airways, or experience a change in how their brain monitors breathing while they sleep. 

Because sleep apnea has a lot to do with your bone structure and anatomy, you can’t always prevent getting it. However, you can make lifestyle changes that reduce your risk of developing the condition. These include getting regular exercise and avoiding alcohol and smoking. 

young woman sleeping on her side

Ridofranz / Getty Images

Who Is Most at Risk?  

Some risk factors aren’t modfiable—meaning, you can’t do anything to change them. But, some risk factors are lifestyle-related, which means you do have some control over them. Having the following risk factors might increase your chance of developing sleep apnea:

  • Being assigned male at birth
  • Being between the ages of 40 and 70
  • Being overweight, as excess fat can worsen sleep apnea 
  • Smoking cigarettes 
  • Drinking alcohol 

Keep in mind: having certain risk factors aren’t surefire causes of having a condition. You can have one or more of these risk factors without developing sleep apnea. 

Genetics 

If you have a family history of sleep apnea, you might have an increased risk of getting the condition. While there is a lot more research that needs to be done, some experts believe that genetics can help show:

  • If you have genes that are associated with sleep apnea 
  • If you have certain genetic factors, such as facial anatomy or fat distribution, that can increase your risk of developing the condition 

According to an article published in Respirology, sleep apnea may involve a combination of many genes and environmental factors that could increase your risk. Until more information is known, genetic testing or genetic counseling is not currently available for sleep apnea.

How to Reduce Risk 

Healthcare providers recommend lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of sleep apnea. Some of these lifestyle habits might be big changes. It’s OK if these changes feel overwhelming at first. Remember that your healthcare provider and other specialists can help you adjust to these changes slowly.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Sleep apnea and obesity have similar effects, including inflammation and stress to the body. About 50% of people who are obese have sleep apnea. Obesity can increase fat deposits in the neck, which can increase the likelihood that your airway will collapse.

Taking steps to lose weight, such as getting your body moving more and eating a nutritious diet that is right for you can help lower your obesity—and thus, also decrease your risk of sleep apnea.

Quitting Smoking

A meta-analysis study about the connection between smoking and sleep apnea had two primary findings. The first: heavy smokers were at higher risk for sleep apnea. The second: those with severe sleep apnea are more likely to smoke.

Researchers don’t fully know why smoking can worsen sleep apnea. Some theories suggest that smokers typically report greater problems with sleep. Also, smoking can cause airway inflammation and upper airway narrowing, which could worsen sleep apnea.

In general, studies have found that quitting smoking is linked to improved sleep quality and decreased risk of sleep apnea, especially after nicotine withdrawal symptoms recede.

Lowering Alcohol Intake 

Refraining from drinking alcohol can help reduce your risks for sleep apnea. Alcohol has a sedative effect (or, can make you drowsy) which may make your snoring worse by causing you to sleep more heavily and not wake up as quickly if your oxygen levels drop. Alcohol can also cause the tongue to relax more easily, which can cause snoring.

Researchers are still studying if there is a threshold for alcohol intake that can worsen sleep apnea.

Adjusting Your Sleep Position 

Sleeping on your side or on your stomach can also help reduce your sleep apnea risk. Researchers estimate that 56% to 75% of people with sleep apnea sleep on their backs. This position can raise the risk of your airways becoming narrow. Experts recommend to instead sleep on your stomach or side.

If you currently sleep on your back, using a sleep positioner (like, a wedge-type pillow) behind you can keep you from lying on your back. Some people with sleep apnea have also tried sewing a pocket or extra cloth over a tennis ball on the back of a t-shirt. If you try to roll onto your back, the tennis ball will be so uncomfortable that you won’t lie on your back—which can train you to sleep in a different position.

Getting Exercise 

Engaging in three to five exercise sessions for 45 to 60 minutes per week can reduce your risk of developing sleep apnea. Studies suggest that aerobic (or, cardio) exercises that keep your heart pumping and increase your heart rate may be especially helpful. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, riding a bicycle, or swimming.  

Regular exercise can reduce your risk of sleep apnea regardless of your body weight or body fat percentage. Exercise may also help enhance sleep quality and reduce low oxygen levels during sleep.

Discuss With Your Healthcare Provider

If you have a family history of sleep apnea, have one or more risk factors of sleep apnea, or wake up feeling unrefreshed, you may want to visit your healthcare provider to get tested for sleep apnea. 

While there are some risk factors you can’t change (e.g., your age or assigned sex at birth), you may have control over other lifestyle factors, such as your habits, weight, and sleep positioning. 

Before you make any major lifestyle or medical changes, it’s important to discuss with your provider. Your healthcare provider can also suggest various techniques and treatment options that may help you reach your health goals safely.

A Quick Review 

Sleep apnea is a condition that can affect your sleep quality and cardiovascular (or, heart) health. Preventive efforts include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and sleeping on your side or stomach. If you do notice signs of sleep apnea (such as feeling tired when you wake up or having a morning headache), despite taking preventative measures, talk to your healthcare provider about testing and treatments. 

Was this page helpful?
Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is sleep apnea?

  2. Taveria K, Kuntze M, Berretta F, et al. Association between obstructive sleep apnea and alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco: A meta-analysis. J Oral Rehabil. 2018;45(11):890-902. doi:10.1111/joor.12686

  3. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Obstructive sleep apnea in adults: Screening

  4. Mukherjee S, Saxena R, Palmer L. The genetics of obstructive sleep apnea. Respirology. 2018;23(1):18-27. doi:10.1111/resp.13212

  5. Kuvat N, Tanriverdi H, Armutcu F. The relationship between obstructive sleep apnea syndrome and obesity: A new perspective on the pathogenesis in terms of organ crosstalk. The Clin Resp J. 14(7):595-604. doi:10.1111/crj.13175

  6. Zeng X, Ren Y, Wu K, et al. Association between smoking behavior and obstructive sleep apnea: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nicotine Tob Res. 2022;ntac126. doi:10.1093/nrt/ntac126

  7. Krishnan V, Dixon-Williams S, Thornton JD. Where there is smoke ... there is sleep apnea. Chest. 2014;146(6):1673–1680. doi:10.1378/chest.14-0772

  8. Bugos-Sanchez C, Jones N, Camacho M. Impact of alcohol consumption on snoring and sleep apnea: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2020;163(6):1078-1086. doi: 10.1177/0194599820931087 

  9. Ravesloot M, Vonk P, Maurer J, Oksenberg A, de Vries N. Standardized framework to report on the role of sleeping position in sleep apnea patients. Sleep Breath. 2021;25(4):1717-1728. doi: 10.1007/s11325-020-02255-2 

  10. Stavrou VT, Astara K, Tourlakopoulos KN, et al. Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome: The effect of acute and chronic responses of exercise. Front Med (Lausanne). 2021;8:806924. doi:10.3389/fmed.2021.806924

Related Articles