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Diabetes Care. 2008 Feb;31 Suppl 2:S303-9. doi: 10.2337/dc08-s272.

Abdominal fat and sleep apnea: the chicken or the egg?

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Sleep Lab, Meyer Children's Hospital, Rambam Medical Center, Haifa, Israel.


Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) syndrome is a disorder characterized by repetitive episodes of upper airway obstruction that occur during sleep. Associated features include loud snoring, fragmented sleep, repetitive hypoxemia/hypercapnia, daytime sleepiness, and cardiovascular complications. The prevalence of OSA is 2-3% and 4-5% in middle-aged women and men, respectively. The prevalence of OSA among obese patients exceeds 30%, reaching as high as 50-98% in the morbidly obese population. Obesity is probably the most important risk factor for the development of OSA. Some 60-90% of adults with OSA are overweight, and the relative risk of OSA in obesity (BMI >29 kg/m(2)) is >or=10. Numerous studies have shown the development or worsening of OSA with increasing weight, as opposed to substantial improvement with weight reduction. There are several mechanisms responsible for the increased risk of OSA with obesity. These include reduced pharyngeal lumen size due to fatty tissue within the airway or in its lateral walls, decreased upper airway muscle protective force due to fatty deposits in the muscle, and reduced upper airway size secondary to mass effect of the large abdomen on the chest wall and tracheal traction. These mechanisms emphasize the great importance of fat accumulated in the abdomen and neck regions compared with the peripheral one. It is the abdomen much more than the thighs that affect the upper airway size and function. Hence, obesity is associated with increased upper airway collapsibility (even in nonapneic subjects), with dramatic improvement after weight reduction. Conversely, OSA may itself predispose individuals to worsening obesity because of sleep deprivation, daytime somnolence, and disrupted metabolism. OSA is associated with increased sympathetic activation, sleep fragmentation, ineffective sleep, and insulin resistance, potentially leading to diabetes and aggravation of obesity. Furthermore, OSA may be associated with changes in leptin, ghrelin, and orexin levels; increased appetite and caloric intake; and again exacerbating obesity. Thus, it appears that obesity and OSA form a vicious cycle where each results in worsening of the other.

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