Sex, stress and sleep apnoea: Decreased susceptibility to upper airway muscle dysfunction following intermittent hypoxia in females

Ken D. O’Halloran, Philip Lewis, Fiona McDonald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (OSAS) is a devastating respiratory control disorder more common in men than women. The reasons for the sex difference in prevalence are multifactorial, but are partly attributable to protective effects of oestrogen. Indeed, OSAS prevalence increases in post-menopausal women. OSAS is characterized by repeated occlusions of the pharyngeal airway during sleep. Dysfunction of the upper airway muscles controlling airway calibre and collapsibility is implicated in the pathophysiology of OSAS, and sex differences in the neuro-mechanical control of upper airway patency are described. It is widely recognized that chronic intermittent hypoxia (CIH), a cardinal feature of OSAS due to recurrent apnoea, drives many of the morbid consequences characteristic of the disorder. In rodents, exposure to CIH-related redox stress causes upper airway muscle weakness and fatigue, associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. Of interest, in adults, there is female resilience to CIH-induced muscle dysfunction. Conversely, exposure to CIH in early life, results in upper airway muscle weakness equivalent between the two sexes at 3 and 6 weeks of age. Ovariectomy exacerbates the deleterious effects of exposure to CIH in adult female upper airway muscle, an effect partially restored by oestrogen replacement therapy. Intriguingly, female advantage intrinsic to upper airway muscle exists with evidence of substantially greater loss of performance in male muscle during acute exposure to severe hypoxic stress. Sex differences in upper airway muscle physiology may have relevance to human OSAS. The oestrogen-oestrogen receptor α axis represents a potential therapeutic target in OSAS, particularly in post-menopausal women.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages7
JournalRespiratory Physiology and Neurobiology
Early online date21 Nov 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Nov 2016


  • Antioxidant
  • Intermittent hypoxia
  • Oestrogen
  • Oestrogen receptor &alpha
  • Sleep apnoea


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