BANGOR, Maine — Sherry Johnston, a former contestant on NBC’s hit reality show “The Biggest Loser,” garnered national attention for losing weight. Now, she’s using her turn in the spotlight to talk about losing sleep.
Johnston, a Knoxville, Tenn., widow who shed 99 pounds on season nine of the series, will speak on Wednesday in Bangor about her struggle with obstructive sleep apnea. The condition, caused by throat muscles that block the airway and repeatedly interrupt breathing during sleep, can leave sufferers gasping for air and drowsy during the day.
Left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can also lead to or worsen heart disease.
Johnston and her daughter Ashley, who appeared on the show with her, were both diagnosed with the condition before filming the reality series.
“There were times when [Ashley] had gotten up and come to my room and was crying, saying, ‘Mom, I woke up and I couldn’t even breathe. I thought I was dying.’ We were living like that on a daily basis,” Johnston said.
Nearly once every minute each night, the condition halted Johnston’s breathing, she said.
“It affects your productivity, it affects everything when you’re just exhausted,” Johnston said. “Also, you crave. If you’re tired, you crave carbs and sugars and things that are going to keep you up.”
Johnston and her daughter found relief in a treatment called continuous positive airway pressure, which involves a face mask connected to a machine that uses air pressure to keep the airway open.
While her sleep apnea is caused by a structural blockage, losing weight helped to alleviate her symptoms, Johnston said. Now, she sleeps through the night, she said.
“I wake up with energy, rather than what I did before — go to bed tired, wake up tired,” Johnston said. “I wake up and I’m more alert, I’m ready, I feel like I think clearer than I did before.”
Since the 2010 finale of her season of the “The Biggest Loser,” Johnston has gained some weight back, but her time on the show gave her the tools to stay healthful, she said. Staying well-rested by treating her sleep apnea is key to keeping off the pounds, Johnston said.
“You’ve got to keep working out. You have to keep moving, you have to keep eating right, you have to keep dealing with all the things in your life, sleeping well and really keeping up with your doctor,” she said.
Wednesday’s event will also feature Dr. Ganesha Santhyadka, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Respiratory Care, who will speak about the signs and symptoms of OSA; and Bangor dentist Dr. John Hauge, who will discuss dental appliances for treating OSA.
The free seminar, co-sponsored by St. Joseph Healthcare’s Center for Sleep Medicine, will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor. It is open to the public, and attendees must register in advance by calling 907-1630.