A new study offers interesting clues to why sleep apnea and autoimmune diseases are linked together. The research may help in the development of new treatments and new drug therapies. Earlier research has shown that sleep apnea increases the risk of having an autoimmune disease. Immune system disorders can be caused by either an underreaction or overreaction by the immune system. Some common autoimmune diseases are lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
What Sleep Apnea Is
Obstructive sleep apnea, otherwise known as OSA, occurs when the muscles in the throat become flaccid briefly, causing a person’s windpipe to collapse and preventing respiration. The condition is treated using continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. With CPAP, a device continually pumps air through a mask to keep the airway open.
OSA affects about one-third of all Americans and increases the risk of autoimmune problems. But the links between the two conditions are not well understood.
In the study, researchers focused on four different cytokines that are connected to autoimmune diseases. Cytokines are proteins used for signaling cells. They divided volunteers into three groups – people who had OSA but were not receiving any treatment for it, people with OSA who were being treated, and a control group of people without OSA. Then, the researchers examined the cytokines of each group.
They found that people with untreated OSA had abnormal levels of cytokines. This discovery pointed to a connection between lack of sleep and oxygen and cytokine levels, as well as establishing a causal link to autoimmune diseases. Higher levels of these particular cytokines have been linked to autoimmune conditions.
Specifically, the researchers found that cytokine levels were much different in people with OSA who were being treated, as well as in untreated OSA patients. The levels of some cytokines linked to autoimmune disorders were more than five times higher among untreated OSA patients than treated ones. And the cytokine levels in the OSA people receiving treatment were still almost two times higher than the control group without OSA.
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