If you open your mouth and stick out your tongue all the way, while looking in the mirror, and you cannot see your entire uvula – the ball-like protrusion that hangs down from the roof then you have a fat tongue, and may be at greater risk of loud snoring, and sleep apnoea.
It can leave people fatigued and suffering mood swings as well as increasing the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
Scientists knew that the condition was more likely in people who were overweight or obese, and that it improved when they lost weight, but until now they did not know why.
A new study, from the University of Pennsylvania, found that when people lose weight in their body, they also lose weight in their tongue.
And they discovered that every extra one per cent tongue weight loss equated to a one per cent reduction in the risk of sleep apnoea.
“Most clinicians, and even experts in the sleep apnoea world, have not typically focused on fat in the tongue for treating sleep apnea,” said Dr Richard Schwab, chief of Sleep Medicine at the university.
“Now that we know tongue fat is a risk factor and that sleep apnoea improves when tongue fat is reduced, we have established a unique therapeutic target that we’ve never had before.”
Through diet or weight loss surgery, the patients lost nearly 10 per cent of their body weight, on average, over six months and their sleep apnoea scores improved by an average 31 percent after the weight loss intervention, as measured by a sleep study.
Before and after the weight loss, the participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to both their upper airway as well as their abdomens.
The team found that a reduction in tongue fat volume was the primary link between weight loss and sleep apnoea improvement.
The study also found that weight loss resulted in reduced pterygoid (a jaw muscle that controls chewing) and pharyngeal lateral wall (muscles on the sides of the airway) volumes.
Both these changes also improved sleep apnoea, but not to the same extent as the reduction in tongue fat.
The team is also examining whether some patients who are not obese but who have fat tongues could be predisposed to sleep apnoea, but are less likely to be diagnosed.
Dr Schwab, said that all patients who suffer from snoring or sleepiness should be screened for sleep apnoea, whether or not they appear to fall into the typical high-risk obese categories.
“Primary care doctors, and perhaps even dentists, should be asking about snoring and sleepiness in all patients, even those who have a normal body mass index, as, based on our data, they may also be at risk for sleep apnoea,” he added.
The findings were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
– Rosy Onuh
Source: Sarah Knapton