January 25, 2022

What You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting If You Have Sleep Apnea

Posted by Jessica Penner

Food on a plate in the shape of a clock to symbolize intermittent fasting

You may not think of yourself as a regular faster, but every time you get a full night’s sleep, unless you’re waking up to have a snack, you are fasting a whole eight hours or so. When you enjoy your morning meal, you are breaking your nightly fast!

Intermittent fasting is when a person undergoes repeated, scheduled fasts with the intention of losing weight or improving one’s health status.

With the recent rise in the popularity of intermittent fasting, new and slightly different protocols keep popping up! Most of them fall into these categories, organized from the easiest to most difficult to adhere to: 

Random Meal Skipping: with this “plan” you simply fast longer between meals

Time-Restricted Fasting: instead of eating throughout your waking hours, you extend your nightly fast by starting several hours before bed, or by delaying breakfast, or both! A common fasting length is 16 hours, which leaves an eight-hour eating window each day.

24 Hour Fasting: many plans will have you fast twice a week for 24 hours. For example, after breakfast, you would fast until breakfast the following day. Some plans simply give you a very limited calorie allotment (500-600 calories) for the “fasting” day.

Alternate Day Fasting: this involves completely fasting every other day. At such a high frequency, this can be very challenging to maintain.

Unless the fast is less than 24 hours, fasting still enables you to stay hydrated with water or other calorie-free beverages such as black coffee or tea, since the human body can’t go for long without water!

How does intermittent fasting work?

There are two main outcomes of intermittent fasting: reduced calorie intake and brief periods of ketosis, which is where the body switches over to using fat as its primary fuel source, instead of glucose (a simple carbohydrate). For more information on ketosis, check out our keto article!

In examining the research on intermittent fasting, it’s important to look at what plan the participants followed. You can’t expect to see the same effects on the body from skipping a meal as you would from fasting every other day.

How does intermittent fasting affect sleep apnea?

Food intake is one of the signals the body uses to establish its circadian (daily) rhythm for sleep. As such, refraining from eating when you normally would eat could theoretically alter sleep habits. But let’s look at what the research shows!

Since each ‘intermittent fasting’ protocol affects the body in its own way, we have to look at how each type might affect sleep instead of generalizing the results of one study to all the different protocols.

In this 24-hour fasting study, during which participants limited calories to 600 one day and then have an “unlimited” alternate day, the diet had no effect on sleep (meaning it didn’t make it worse or better)!

Two studies studying time-restricted fasting (found here and here) found that sleep quality was also unaffected. 

However, in this study, the participants fasted every day between dawn to sunset for a month, and REM sleep was reduced. 

The takeaway

If you have sleep apnea and you’re thinking about adopting intermittent fasting, the likely best plan for your sleep structure is to start eating at breakfast and stop eating in the late afternoon.

Consuming food in the evening and at night can disrupt sleep, so expanding your overnight fast by a few hours is likely a good move for anyone with sleep apnea! Refraining from eating for a few hours before going to bed is known to help improve sleep apnea.

If you are wondering how to start this type of intermittent fasting, try starting your nightly fast an hour earlier each week. So if you normally have a snack before bed at 11, have that snack an hour earlier this week, and then an hour earlier next week. Assess how each change works into your lifestyle.

This can help you gradually find the right length of fasting window to help build the sleep structure and lifestyle that meets your goals!

If you are interested in learning more about nutrition and sleep, click this link.

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