Counting Sheep at Night? Try a Mediterranean Diet

Sleep apnea symptoms reduced with Mediterranean diet

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Dietitians have long promoted the health benefits of a diet rich in fish, vegetables, non-refined cereals, olive oil and even some red wine. A Mediterranean-based diet, while nutritionally healthy, may also ease problems of sleep apnea.

When combined with physical exercise, eating a Mediterranean diet improves the symptoms of the sleep disorder, particularly on obese people. Sleep apnea causes restriction or blockage of the airways, resulting in paused and disrupted sleep.

"Eat a Mediterranean diet and exercise to improve sleep."

Researchers at the University of Crete in Greece, led by Christopher Papandreou, examined 40 obese patients suffering from obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS). Twenty patients were given a regular prudent diet to follow, while the other 20 followed a Mediterranean diet. Both groups were encouraged to exercise and walk at least 30 minutes each day. Both groups received treatment with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

The participants' sleep was monitored with polysomnography, which measured electrical activity in the brain, eye movements and snoring, at the start of the study and again 6 months later. Those in the Mediterranean diet group had a reduced number of sleep apnea disturbances during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which accounts for approximately 25 percent of total sleep during the night.

The Mediterranean group also showed a greater adherence to the diet, increased physical activity and decrease in abdominal fat. While two to four percent of the adult population suffers from sleep apnea, those numbers increase to 20 to 40 percent of people who are obese. Weight loss is often an essential part of treatment for OSAS.

"Obesity is an inflammatory state with numerous comorbidities that include sleep apnea," says Carol Wolin-Riklin, a registered dietitian at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. "The Mediterranean diet is based on eating healthier fat in moderation– especially Omega-3 fatty acids, using more plant based foods such as fruits and vegetables to increase daily fiber, using whole grains and getting regular exercise. By consuming such a diet, the inflammatory levels associated with obesity may decrease along with excess body fat and help to resolve metabolic syndrome comorbidities such as sleep apnea."

In the Greek study, improvements to sleep apnea symptoms were shown only during the REM stage of sleep, and the overall severity of the OSAS for these patients was not affected. Papandreou advises that further studies be done to fully understand the benefits of the diet on sleep disorders.

Findings were published in the European Respiratory Journal in October 2011. The recommended Mediterranean diet is as follows:

Red meat (servings/wk) 3
Poultry (servings/wk) 3
Fish (servings/wk) 3 (1 of which is fatty fish)
Dairy products, low fat (servings/d) 2
Fruit (servings/d) 4
Vegetables (servings/d) 5
Legumes (servings/wk) >3
Potatoes (servings/wk) >5
Non-refined cereals (servings/d) 6
Red wine (glasses/d) 1-2
Daily use of olive oil moderate  

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 8, 2011
Last Updated:
November 16, 2011