Does obesity play a major role in the pathogenesis of sleep apnoea and its associated manifestations via inflammation, visceral adiposity, and insulin resistance?

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Despite the early recognition of the strong association between obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) and obesity, and OSA and cardiovascular problems, sleep apnoea has been treated as a "local abnormality" of the respiratory track rather than as a "systemic illness". In 1997, we first reported that the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor-α (TNFα) were elevated in patients with disorders of excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and proposed that these cytokines were mediators of daytime sleepiness. In subsequent studies, it was shown that IL-6, TNFα, and insulin levels were elevated in sleep apnoea independently of obesity and that visceral fat was the primary parameter linked with sleep apnoea. Further studies showed that women with the polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) were much more likely than controls to have sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) and daytime sleepiness, suggesting a pathogenetic role of insulin resistance in OSA. Additional accumulated evidence that supports the role of obesity and the associated metabolic aberrations in the pathogenesis of sleep apnoea and related symptoms include: obesity without sleep apnoea is associated with daytime sleepiness; the protective role of gonadal hormones as suggested by the increased prevalence of sleep apnoea in post-menopausal women and the significantly reduced risk for OSA in women on hormonal therapy; partial effects of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) in obese patients with apnoea on hypercytokinemia, insulin resistance indices, and visceral fat; and that the prevalence of the metabolic syndrome in the U.S. population from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1988-1994) parallels the prevalence of symptomatic sleep apnoea in general random samples. Furthermore, the beneficial effect of a cytokine antagonist on EDS and apnoea in obese, male apnoeics and that of exercise and weight loss on SDB and EDS in general random or clinical samples, supports the hypothesis that cytokines and insulin resistance are mediators of EDS and sleep apnoea in humans. Finally, our recent finding that in obese, hypothalamic CRH neuron is hypoactive, provides additional evidence on the potential central neural mechanisms for depressed ventilation and consequent development of sleep apnoea in obese individuals. In conclusion, accumulating evidence provides support to our thesis that obesity via inflammation, insulin resistance, visceral adiposity, and central neural mechanisms, e.g. hypofunctioning hypothalamic CRH, play a major role in the pathogenesis of sleep apnoea, sleepiness, and the associated cardiovascular co-morbidities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-223
Number of pages13
JournalArchives of Physiology and Biochemistry
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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