Obstructive sleep apnea has traditionally been viewed as a structural disease. A multitude of systemic endocrine and cardiovascular abnormalities have been previously attributed to the prevalence of obesity in these patients. A growing body of clinical evidence, however, points to a relationship between sleep apnea and its systemic abnormalities independent of obesity. We hypothesize that this association is based on a maladaptive autonomic response of chemoreceptors, reacting to the hypoxia, hypercapnia, and acidosis of sleep apnea. The elevated sympathetic response triggers an inflammatory cascade that results in a myriad of downstream consequences including insulin resistance, hypertension, diabetes, atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome. The sympathetic bias and endocrine disturbances may further exacerbate sleep disturbance in a potentially pernicious cycle. Our proposal may extend to any chronic respiratory or metabolic conditions that manifest hypoxia, hypercapnia, and acidosis and elicit a maladaptive autonomic and inflammatory response.
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