The Best Sleep Apnea Diet: 6 Foods You Need to Eat (and 4 You Need to Avoid) If You Have OSA

Medically reviewed by Dr. Monique May, Board-Certified Family Physician

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and we are all guilty of gluttony when that particular holiday feast is before us. From carb-packed stuffing to sugar-loaded pumpkin pie, we throw our healthy recipes out the window. We even indulge in seconds without a second thought. Not to mention the leftovers we turn into turkey sandwiches days later. Yes, it’s a special time of year, but it can all catch up to us, especially if you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA.) 

Luckily, there are foods you can incorporate into your Thanksgiving meal to keep you on track, and Aeroflow Sleep knows them all. Learn what foods OSA patients should and should not eat according to the experts as well as what impact diet and exercise can have on your sleep apnea.

Can Diet and Exercise Help Sleep Apnea?

We’ve talked about if weight loss can cure sleep apnea. Now, it’s time to find out how lifestyle changes like a healthy diet and regular exercise can help. Yes, diet and exercise is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for sleep apnea patients. That’s because diet and exercise directly correlate with your body weight, and obesity is a comorbidity of sleep apnea. 

Dr. Monique May, a board-certified family physician and partner of Aeroflow Sleep, summarizes, “A healthy diet and regular exercise help to control one's weight, which ultimately helps prevent or control sleep apnea symptoms.” Where do you even begin though?

Perhaps talking to a personal trainer or nutritionist can help, in addition to your primary care doctor and Aeroflow Sleep Specialist. Personal trainers craft workout routines and are there to motivate you as you complete each physical activity. And although nutritionists aren’t going to be cheering you on every time you eat a salad, they are there to create meal plans.

We’ll bet nutritionists address many of the same foods Dr. May recommends to both eat and avoid below:

"A healthy diet and regular exercise help to control one's weight, which ultimately helps prevent or control sleep apnea symptoms."

~ Dr. Monique May, Board-Certified Family Physician

4 Foods to Avoid If You Have Sleep Apnea

1. Dairy Products

First, we have dairy products. A warm glass of milk before bed is something every grandmother has offered us at some point in our lives. Yet, its benefits may be nothing more than an old wive’s tale, because milk is not good for sleep.

“There are some who believe that milk increases mucus production, however, this has not been scientifically proven,” Dr. May points out, “If you notice that when you drink milk your mucus becomes thicker and affects the way you breathe, then simply avoid drinking milk within 2-3 hours of going to sleep.”

Foods to Avoid If You Have OSA

Milk and Dairy

Bananas

Sugary Processed Foods

Fatty Red Meats

Alcohol

Soda

Increased mucus production will most likely cause breathing problems and further obstruct your airways, which is exactly what we don’t want for anyone with sleep apnea.

2. Foods that Cause Inflammation

Foods that cause inflammation vary from person to person. Some have trouble with cholesterol, some have dietary restrictions or intolerances, and some can eat spicy foods without crying.

At the end of the day, anything that exacerbates your own health conditions including heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension should be avoided. One way to tell is if it’s a food that gives you heartburn or acid reflux. Both break down the lining of your throat (or upper airway) over time and can be high risk factors for sleep apnea.

There are also commonly known foods that cause inflammation and should be avoided according to Dr. May: “Foods that may aggravate sleep apnea include bananas, sugary processed foods, and fatty meats like burgers and sausage.”

3. Alcohol

While we’re on the subject of burgers and sausage, let’s discuss another Thanksgiving tradition that may need some revision: tailgating. Every year, the Saturday after Thanksgiving is dedicated to college football rivalries, which means lots of burgers and sausage on the grill. And what goes great with burgers and sausage? An ice cold beer.

Alcohol is the #1 drink of choice among American football fans, and while it is not food, “It can aggravate sleep apnea by causing relaxation of the soft tissues of the upper airway, making the obstruction a person may have worse,” Dr. May cautions.

She also says, “It may decrease your drive to breathe while you are asleep,” and that’s an offensive drive you don’t want to fumble.

If you have sleep apnea, it’s time to think twice about imbibing on game day. In fact, we have another blog that details why alcohol is bad for sleep apnea patients if you want to learn more.

4. Soda Pop

Soda pops aren’t much better. They have a high content of sugar and caffeine, which begs the question: why would you ever drink one before bed? We don’t let our kids do it, so you shouldn’t either, even if your team did just score a touchdown.

“Drinking caffeine shortly before bed may certainly cause insomnia and negatively impact sleep,” Dr. May says, and that goes for sugar highs too. Not to mention, sugary beverages often contribute to weight gain.

Instead, try green tea for sleep apnea. We’ll tell you why in the next section.

6 Foods to Help With Sleep Apnea

1. Green Tea

Although Dr. May admits that no tea has been scientifically proven to specifically combat sleep apnea, “Green tea has been shown to help with some of the effects on your brain caused by sleep apnea; such as learning or memory problems. The antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties of green tea help to undo some of the damage from daily living.”

Furthermore, it counteracts the foods that cause inflammation we previously mentioned. Add honey to your green tea, and you’re well on your way to a good night’s rest.

2. Honey

Honey is the primary home remedy for sleep apnea that Dr. May mentioned in her last medical review with Aeroflow Sleep. “Honey may help soothe the throat and decrease swelling and may help decrease snoring, a common sleep apnea symptom.”

Another benefit of honey is that it can help with your allergies. “Locally-made honey may help decrease allergy symptoms by using pollen from the area,” Dr. May explains. “This in turn may help sleep apnea by decreasing upper airway swelling and inflammation.”

Foods to Help With Sleep Apnea

Green Tea

Honey

Fruits and Veggies with Vitamin C and E

Tart Cherry Juice

Eggs

Walnuts

Seeds Like Flax and Chia

Soybeans

Whole Grains

Salmon

Poultry

3. Fruits and Vegetables

It’s obvious that fruits and vegetables are beneficial to sleep apnea, because they’re beneficial to everyone’s overall health. But why?

Well, the best vitamins for sleep apnea are Vitamin C and E, and many fruits and vegetables contain both. “Studies have shown that these vitamins help people with sleep apnea breathe and sleep better,” states Dr. May, “Foods that are good for you in general are also good for sleep apnea.  Fruits and vegetables help you feel full longer which may help you sleep better.” It’s as simple as that!

4. Foods that Contain Melatonin

The remaining categories are far less simple but equally important to your health. These foods help sleep apnea through their chemical makeup; in this case, melatonin. Foods that contain melatonin promote sleep. It’s a natural supplement that’s often taken as a pill or vitamin but can also be found in cherry juice, eggs, and nuts.

Although melatonin pills are safe, consuming foods with melatonin is safer, because you have more control over the dosage. Dr. May warns, “Excess amounts of melatonin may cause the muscles of the throat and upper airway to relax too much, worsening the obstruction seen with sleep apnea,” so overdosing on melatonin can negatively impact your sleep apnea.

Plus, melatonin capsules can cause adverse side effects when taken with medications for common sleep apnea comorbidities like diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain psychiatric conditions. Ask your doctor if melatonin should be part of your sleep medicine cabinet or limited to food intake.

5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Salmon is another food that contains vitamins and melatonin, and it contains omega-3 fatty acids too. Dr. May lists “flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans,” alongside salmon as being rich in these essential nutrients that help build new cells.

Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids are especially important to anyone with sleep apnea, because a recent study found that omega-3 fatty acids regulate your levels of norepinephrine, a stress hormone which will decrease REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

The study matches Dr. May’s list closely; it includes salmon as a fish with a high content of omega-3 fatty acid as well as wild herring, mackerel, and sardines. Any of these are worth trying if you have sleep apnea.

6. Foods High in Tryptophan

Finally, foods like canned tuna, whole grain oats, and poultry are high in tryptophan and are a big help to those with any sleep disorder. “Tryptophan, which is an amino acid used to make serotonin (a brain chemical that controls your mood,) may help promote good sleep,” Dr. May concludes.

Where the Diet Stops and CPAP Therapy Begins

Having covered all of the foods to eat and avoid if you have sleep apnea, it’s important to remember that treatment options like these go beyond the standard sleep apnea treatment. A healthy diet and regular exercise will never be enough to help your sleep apnea alone. A medical intervention like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the tried and true way to help sleep apnea, and Aeroflow Sleep is here to provide you with all of the necessary supplies.

We are a dedicated team of healthcare professionals who believe in everyone getting the best possible care and coverage your insurance will allow. How do we do it? We start by being in network with most private insurance companies, being accredited by Medicare and Medicaid, and promising to work with your primary care doctor and coordinate orders between the two. In short, we’ll be there every step of the way.

All you have to do to sleep well and live better is see if you qualify, and then give thanks; for you have just begun your sleep apnea journey.

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