Compensatory responses to upper airway obstruction in obese apneic men and women

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2012 Feb;112(3):403-10. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00021.2011. Epub 2011 Nov 17.


Defective structural and neural upper airway properties both play a pivotal role in the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnea. A more favorable structural upper airway property [pharyngeal critical pressure under hypotonic conditions (passive Pcrit)] has been documented for women. However, the role of sex-related modulation in compensatory responses to upper airway obstruction (UAO), independent of the passive Pcrit, remains unclear. Obese apneic men and women underwent a standard polysomnography and physiological sleep studies to determine sleep apnea severity, passive Pcrit, and compensatory airflow and respiratory timing responses to prolonged periods of UAO. Sixty-two apneic men and women, pairwise matched by passive Pcrit, exhibited similar sleep apnea disease severity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, but women had markedly less severe disease during non-REM (NREM) sleep. By further matching men and women by body mass index and age (n = 24), we found that the lower NREM disease susceptibility in women was associated with an approximately twofold increase in peak inspiratory airflow (P = 0.003) and inspiratory duty cycle (P = 0.017) in response to prolonged periods of UAO and an ∼20% lower minute ventilation during baseline unobstructed breathing (ventilatory demand) (P = 0.027). Thus, during UAO, women compared with men had greater upper airway and respiratory timing responses and a lower ventilatory demand that may account for sex differences in sleep-disordered breathing severity during NREM sleep, independent of upper airway structural properties and sleep apnea severity during REM sleep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Airway Obstruction / complications*
  • Airway Obstruction / physiopathology*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Polysomnography / methods
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory Mechanics / physiology
  • Respiratory System / physiopathology
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / etiology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Sleep, REM / physiology