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What Women Need to Know About Sleep Apnea


The Reality of Sleep Apnea

There are so many things that can sabotage the quality of your sleep, it's tough to keep track: the food and drinks you consume, the time of day you exercise, the amount you work in your bedroom, your TV and computer habits before bed, the temperature of your room, allergens and dust, and so on. Throw in some stress, anxiety, and your desire to "do it all," and getting a good night's sleep can be quite the challenge for a woman.

But none of those factors are necessarily why some women wake up constantly throughout the night and then spend their days severely exhausted. The culprit could be sleep apnea, a disorder in which you stop breathing multiple times throughout the night — and your body in turn panics and wakes you up. (But, like, 50 times a night.) It's a health problem that goes undiagnosed 90 percent (!) of the time.

"It can be hard to admit you might have sleep apnea, but it can be a serious problem," says Olivia Ward, recent FITNESS cover girl, winner of The Biggest Loser Season 11, and former sleep apnea sufferer. "I used to toss and turn all night, and yet I still thought I slept fine."

Sleep apnea is much more common in overweight women — their airways get blocked because of the excess fat — but it can occur in healthy-sized women too. However, that relationship between poor sleep and poor weight management is a vicious one.

This is because depend on three hormones produced by good sleep: cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin. Without those hormones, your appetite isn't suppressed, you start craving starchy carbs, and your metabolism plummets.

Because it can be extremely difficult to lose weight when you're sleep deprived, Biggest Loser contestants get screened by Nationwide Medical for sleep apnea, and then begin nightly use of a Philips Respironics machine for continuous positive airway pressure — better known as a CPAP. Olivia nicknamed hers "Pappy."

"At first I was skeptical about it, but then Pappy became my boyfriend real fast — if he was helping me on the scale, he was staying in my bed!" says Ward. "I was so much more energized in the morning."

Sneaky Symptoms

While Biggest Loser contestants may be obvious candidates for sleep apnea testing and CPAP treatment, women in general often go undiagnosed. That's because snoring — the number-one sign someone may have sleep apnea — isn't as prevalent in women because they don't have the same muscular palette structures as men. Instead, some physical symptoms to watch for include:

  • having a headache when you wake up
  • waking up coughing or gagging
  • heart palpitations or your heart racing upon waking
  • "insomnia" in which you are falling asleep and waking right back up
  • waking up with dry mouth or congestion


The sleep disorder doesn't just hurt your chances of losing weight. There can be serious, chronic health consequences, including hypertension, diabetes, heart failure, and more. In August 2011, sleep apnea was even linked to dementia in women.

Noninvasive Answers

The good news is that it's becoming easier than ever to get tested for sleep apnea. Going to a sleep lab is still an option, but a rapidly growing solution is to use an at-home device provided by your doctor. Shows like Dr. Oz have recently featured the popular Watermark Apnea Risk Evaluation System (ARES), a small headband-like device that you later bring back to your doctor for your sleep study results. Doctors and insurance companies have both embraced this kind of approachable and affordable testing, since it could mean far fewer serious health problems later in life.

Take an Online Sleep Apnea Risk Assessment

If you get tested and it turns out you do have sleep apnea? Well, you may just need your own Pappy.

"The challenge for most women who receive a recommendation to use a CPAP is getting passed their vanity issues," Dody Jordahl, a director at Nationwide Medical says. "But the reality is that once you adjust the settings and lie down to sleep, you really will sleep."

Not only will you probably sleep well and be at your best the next day, but you'll be at a lower risk for all those heart and health problems.

"I now know the value of a good night's sleep," Olivia says. "It's not just a luxury, but a necessity. Your heart and the scale will thank you."

Originally published on, November 2011.