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Volume 11 No. 08
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Accepted Papers

Review Articles

Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Kidney Disease: A Potential Bidirectional Relationship?

Bisher Abuyassin, MSc1; Kumar Sharma, MD2; Najib T. Ayas, MD3; Ismail Laher, PhD1
1Departments of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada; 2Institute of Metabolomic Medicine and Center for Renal Translational Medicine, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA; 3Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada


Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is associated with high mortality rates and heavy economic and social burdens. Nearly 10% of the United States population suffer from CKD, with fatal outcomes increased by 16–40 times even before reaching end-stage renal disease. The prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is between 3% and 7% in the general population, and has increased dramatically during the last 2 decades along with increased rates of obesity. However, the prevalence of OSA is much greater in patients with CKD. In addition, aggressive dialysis improves OSA. The current literature suggests a bidirectional association between CKD and OSA through a number of potential pathological mechanisms, which increase the possibility of both diseases being possible risk factors for each other. CKD may lead to OSA through a variety of mechanisms, including alterations in chemoreflex responsiveness, pharyngeal narrowing due to fluid overload, and accumulation of uremic toxins. It is also being increasingly recognized that OSA can also accelerate loss of kidney function. Moreover, animals exposed to intermittent hypoxia suffer histopathological renal damage. Potential mechanisms of OSA-associated renal dysfunction include renal hypoxia, hypertension, endothelial dysfunction, activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and increased oxidative stress.


A commentary on this article appears in this issue on page 845.


Abuvassin B, Sharma K, Ayas NT, Laher I. Obstructive sleep apnea and kidney disease: a potential bidirectional relationship? J Clin Sleep Med 2015;11(8):915–924.

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) severely affects a patient's health, lifestyle, and well-being. Diabetes and hypertension are the leading causes for the increased prevalence of CKD.1 The silent nature of CKD is of considerable concern as well, particularly during the early stages of disease progression. Nearly 10% of the United States population suffer from CKD.2 The global prevalence of CKD is estimated to be between 8% and 16%.3 There was a high number of deaths (90,118 patients) associated with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in 2009 in the United States.2 In fact, individuals with CKD are 16 to 40 times more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases and other comorbidities before ESRD.2,4 The prevalence of CKD in Canada (12.5% for 2007–2009) is similar to that in the United States.5 The economic burden of CKD is troublesome as well, since the total expenditure for CKD management in the United States reached $45.5 billion in 2011, constituting 18% of total Medicare expenditure,6 and the annual cost of medical care per CKD patient was $19,752 in 2008 in the United States.7 Based on the National Kidney Foundation Kidney Disease Outcomes Quality Initiative (NKF KDOQI), CKD is defined as either kidney damage or having an estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) < 60 mL/min/1.73 m2 for ≥ 3 months.8

Sleep apnea is characterized by repeated episodes of apnea and hypopnea during sleep,911 while obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is characterized by upper airway collapse during sleep, and is by far the most common type of sleep apnea.12 Most studies estimate the prevalence of sleep disordered breathing to be between 3% and 7%, depending on the definition of the disease.1318 The number of patients with OSA in the United States is estimated at 15 million.19 However, some believe that these rates may be an underestimate, since rates of obesity, which is a major risk factor for OSA, has been steadily increasing over recent decades. Estimates based on current weight trends suggest that moderate-to-severe sleep disordered breathing occurs in 10% in men between 30 and 49 years old, and up to 17% in men aged 50 to 70 years old.20 The association between obesity and OSA is illustrated by data from Saudi Arabia where there are high rates of obesity21 that results in one in 3 middle-aged males and 4 in 10 middle-aged females being at increased risk of developing OSA.22,23 However, these data are based on the Berlin questionnaire stratification for risk of OSA, which can falsely exaggerate prevalence of OSA. Of note, OSA is generally underappreciated, with 93% of women and 82% of men with moderate-to-severe sleep apnea not being clinically diagnosed.2427

Accumulating data suggest a bidirectional relationship between OSA and CKD. That is, CKD likely confers an increased risk of OSA, and OSA may in turn increase the risk of renal injury. We undertook a search of the medical literature published between 1980 and 2014, using the PubMed, EMBAASE, and OVID databases for articles published in English, and included the following keywords: chronic kidney disease, obstructive sleep apnea, epidemiology or pathophysiology, or their corresponding synonyms in MeSH terms. Our search yielded a total of 275 papers, of which we selected 124 to be of interest for this review.



Patients with ESRD have an increased prevalence of OSA. In a survey of male patients undergoing hemodialysis, 41% (12 of 29) had positive symptoms of sleep-related breathing disorders. A follow-up investigation of 8 of these patients using all-night polysomnography confirmed that 6 patients had OSA.28 Another relatively small study confirmed the association between kidney disease and sleep apnea in 26 patients with ESRD, in which 22 patients were symptomatic of sleep apnea and 16 patients from the symptomatic group had a confirmed diagnosis of sleep apnea.29 Several recent epidemiological studies affirm the association between CKD and resultant sleep apnea.3034 Some authors suggest that sleep apnea occurs in at least 50% to 60% of CKD patients with ESRD,32,35 and the prevalence of sleep apnea in CKD patients is 10 times higher than the prevalence of sleep apnea in the general population.34 Table 1 summarizes the outcomes of a number of epidemiological studies relating to OSA in CKD patients.

Occurrence of OSA in patients with CKD.


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Table 1

Occurrence of OSA in patients with CKD.

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More recent data on the occurrence of sleep apnea in CKD comes from Nicholl and colleagues, who studied sleep apnea in different categories of CKD patients.36 They stratified 254 patients from a nephrology clinic into 3 categories based on their kidney function: (1) eGFR ≥ 60 mL/min, (2) CKD with eGFR < 60 mL/min and not on dialysis, and (3) ESRD on hemodialysis. Their data revealed significant increases in the occurrence of sleep apnea (predominantly obstructive) that was related to declining kidney function, with the prevalence of sleep apnea being 57% in the ESRD group, 41% in the CKD patients not on dialysis, and 27% in the patients with eGFR ≥ 60 mL/min. They concluded that the high incidence of nocturnal hypoxia in CKD with ESRD patients could contribute to both the loss of kidney function and increased cardiovascular risk. Despite the statistically significant association between declining kidney functions and nocturnal hypoxia, it should be noted that CKD and ESRD patients were significantly older and presented with other risk factors for sleep apnea such as hypertension and diabetes. An important consideration in studies reporting a high incidence of sleep apnea in CKD patients is the presence of multiple comorbidities that can also contribute to the occurrence of sleep apnea as well.37,38

Pathological Mechanisms

Epidemiological studies highlight an increased risk of OSA in patients with CKD. The exact mechanisms of kidney disease-induced OSA are not yet fully elucidated. However, there are several proposed mechanisms that describe the pathophysiology of CKD-related sleep apnea.

Chemoreflex Responsiveness

Chemoreflex control is the predominant drive of respiration during NREM sleep.39 Both peripheral and central chemoreflexes may have crucial roles in the pathophysiology of various diseases including sleep apnea.40 In fact, the instability of ventilatory control during sleep is a distinguishing feature in the pathophysiology of central sleep apnea.41,42 However, altered chemoreflex responsiveness can also contribute to OSA by leading to increased controller gain of the respiratory system and breathing instability (Figure 1).3940

Potential mechanisms linking CKD to OSA.


Figure 1

Potential mechanisms linking CKD to OSA.

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Alterations in chemoreflex responsiveness occur in patients with ESRD43 and could partially explain the pathophysiological mechanisms linking CKD to sleep apnea, particularly through metabolic acidosis and accumulation of uremic toxins, which are considered consequences of progressive CKD.4445 Metabolic acidosis enhances peripheral chemosensitivity, causing marked alterations in the ventilatory recruitment threshold of pCO2 and ultimately predisposing central or OSA.39,4647 It is thought that hypocapnia (reduced pCO2 levels), a respiratory compensatory mechanism during metabolic acidosis, enhances chemoreceptor sensitivity to CO2, thus altering chemoreflex control, and ultimately destabilizing respiratory control during sleep by decreasing pCO2 levels below the apneic threshold.3739,41,4851 On the other hand, chemoreflex sensitivity is markedly altered by hypercapnia.52 The central and peripheral chemoreflex responsiveness to arterial CO2 was studied in 58 patients with ESRD,39 where patients were stratified based on their polysomnography-measured apnea-hypopnea index ([AHI] averaged frequency of apnea and hypopnea per sleeping hour) into non-apneic (n = 20) or apneic (n = 38) groups, who mostly (89%) had obstructive respiratory symptoms. Compared to non-apneic group, a significant increase in chemoreflex sensitivity to hypercapnia (measured by ventilatory sensitivity to arterial CO2) was found in apneic patients during isoxic-hypoxia and hyperoxia states. Nevertheless, multiple linear regression analysis identified AHI as a positive predictor for hypoxic and hyperoxic ventilatory sensitivity. These results suggest that chemoreflex responsiveness is augmented in patients with ESRD and sleep apnea, and this may, at least partially, explain the pathophysiological association between the two disease states.

Pharyngeal Narrowing

OSA is partly due to lateral pharyngeal narrowing and/or increased thickness of the lateral pharyngeal muscular walls.5355 Some studies reported changes in pharyngeal morphology in ESRD, which may provide another mechanism for ESRD-related OSA. For example, the pharyngeal area is narrower in ESRD patients (3.04 cm2) than that in subjects with normal renal function (3.46 cm2).56 Furthermore, changes in the pharyngeal cross-sectional area was assessed after conversion from conventional hemodialysis (4 h/day, 3 days/week) to nocturnal hemodialysis (8 h/night, 3–6 nights/week) in 24 ESRD patients, of whom 16 had AHI ≥ 15/h (predominantly obstructive).57 There were significant increases in the average pharyngeal cross-sectional area at functional residual capacity (3.29 cm2 vs 3.39 cm2) and at residual volume (1.91 cm2 vs 2.13 cm2) (p < 0.05) after conversion to nocturnal hemodialysis, with a 19% (3 of 16) response rate (AHI reduced to 15/h) in apneic patients.

A crossover study of 38 patients with ESRD who underwent overnight polysomnography during either cycler-assisted nocturnal peritoneal dialysis or continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis reported that continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis doubled the prevalence of severe sleep apnea (AHI ≥ 15/h) (42.1% vs 21.1%), as well as the mean AHI (21.5 vs 9.6).48 Volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the upper airway showed significant reductions in nasopharyngeal volume by 25.4%, oropharyngeal volume by 34%, and hypopharyngeal volume by 21.6% after conversion to continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis. There was also a significant increase in tongue volume by 8.22%. These results were in accordance with a 2.2-fold greater reduction in total body water with cycler-assisted nocturnal peritoneal dialysis, compared with continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis. Importantly, AHI correlated negatively with urea kinetics and also with peritoneal creatinine. These findings suggest that cycler-assisted nocturnal peritoneal dialysis alleviates sleep apnea secondary to improved fluid and uremic clearance.

The effect of pharyngeal narrowing secondary to renal failure on sleep apnea can also be attributed to the fluid overload.58 Applying positive pressure to the lower limbs when in a supine position significantly increases neck circumference and airflow resistance of the pharynx, thus affecting airflow to the lungs.59 This mimics fluid overload status in patients with renal failure. Other mechanism include reduction in lung volume secondary to pulmonary edema, especially during sleep, which can reduce the upper airway size.57

Finally, uremic myopathy or neuropathy can directly affect the upper airway dilator muscles and so reduce the airway size,6061 although this mechanism has not been investigated in patients with ESRD.

ESRD Management and OSA

The potential impact of ESRD management on sleep apnea was elegantly shown in an intervention trial by Hanly et al. These investigators switched 14 ESRD patients (9 of 14 diagnosed with OSA) from conventional 3 times/week hemodialysis to 6–7 times/week nocturnal hemodialysis at home.62 After 6–15 months, average AHI was reduced from 25 to 8 episodes/h of sleep (p = 0.03). The potential mechanisms of improvement in OSA symptoms were not evaluated in this study. An earlier case of 2 ESRD patients with severe OSA (AHI = 80) and central sleep apnea (AHI = 51) reported an absence of sleep apnea symptoms, with reductions in AHI to 9 and 5, respectively, after undergoing renal transplantation.63



Rates of CKD are greater in patients with OSA, raising the possibility that sleep apnea can contribute in CKD as well (Table 2). A major obstacle for investigating this unexpected consequence of sleep disordered breathing is the fact that patients with sleep apnea usually also present with several other comorbidities such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, which are also all risk factors for CKD.6465 An early study on the occurrence of CKD in patients with sleep disordered breathing took place in Okinawa, Japan, in a retrospective cohort fashion.66 This investigation compared data of 1,624 patients diagnosed with sleep-related breathing disorder and with known estimated values of GFR, with 7,454 age- and gender-matched control subjects. Sleep related breathing disorder was defined as AHI > 5, and CKD as eGFR < 60 mL/min/1.73 m2. The prevalence of CKD in the sleep disordered breathing group was 3 times greater than in controls (30.5% vs 9.1%), with an adjusted odds ratio of 4.542. Neither body mass index (BMI) nor AHI were significant determinants for CKD in the sleep disordered breathing group when other confounding variables were adjusted for. In fact, the prevalence of CKD decreased as BMI increased in the sleep disordered breathing group, causing the investigators to recommend screening for development of CKD in patients with sleep disordered breathing. However, these results should be interpreted with caution since several risk factors for CKD, such as diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome, were not defined in the subjects. In addition, all subjects were recruited from a single center in retrospective fashion, and the possibility of selection bias could not be eliminated.

Occurrence of CKD in patients with OSA.


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Table 2

Occurrence of CKD in patients with OSA.

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The effect of OSA on kidney function was also examined in a cross-sectional study of 91 morbidly obese subjects who underwent polysomnography tests prior to bariatric surgery.67 Thirty-six subjects had no OSA (AHI < 5), while the 55 remaining patients suffered from OSA (AHI ≥ 5). Of note, the average level of serum creatinine was significantly higher in the OSA group (0.9 mg/dL vs 0.8 mg/dL) from a statistical point of view, suggesting that the increased severity of OSA in obese adults was associated with higher serum creatinine levels. However, there were no differences in albuminuria between the groups, except when subjects were categorized based on the presence of hypertension. Generalizability of these results is not warranted, since the majority of the subjects were Caucasian females.

The presence of hypertension, diabetes, and old age present challenges when studying sleep apnea-induced CKD, leading some to investigate the likelihood of increased CKD in non-diabetic, non-hypertensive OSA patients.68 In a group of polysomnography-screened subjects, 40 subjects met these criteria and were included in prospective analysis: 37 subjects presented with mild-to-severe OSA, of whom 5 subjects met the criteria for CKD. Multivariate stepwise linear regression analysis indicated that AHI and desaturation index were the only predictors for urine albumin-to-creatinine ratio and eGFR. The small sample size, gender (83% male), race (Asian), and the lack of control for some confounders affecting urine albumin-to-creatinine ratio were the main limitations of the study.

Pathological Mechanisms

The potential mechanisms of OSA-induced CKD are unclear. Most studies conclude that sleep related breathing disorder induces kidney injury or CKD indirectly through hypertension, oxidative stress, endothelial dysfunction, and hypoxemia-related activation of the sympathetic nervous and renin-angiotensin-aldosterone systems (Figure 2).6976

Potential mechanisms linking OSA to CKD.


Figure 2

Potential mechanisms linking OSA to CKD.

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Renal tissue hypoxia plays an important role in the development of acute kidney injury and chronic kidney diseases. It is generally agreed that several mechanisms can aggravate renal hypoxia. Of these, hypoxemia has recently been suggested to be significantly associated with sleep apnea.77 Kidneys are among the most richly perfused organs in the body since the kidneys receive nearly one-quarter of resting cardiac output.78 On other hand, renal oxygen tension is relatively low secondary to low renal oxygen consumption, since less than 10% of the total oxygen passing through the kidneys is consumed.78 The relatively low renal oxygen consumption compared to the high blood flow volume is mainly attributed to the unique structure and organization of the renal arterioles and venules within the cortex and medulla. The close contact and the parallel pathways of the renal arteries and veins, particularly within renal medulla, allows a countercurrent exchange of oxygen before its entry to the capillary bed. The availability of oxygen within renal tissues depends on renal blood flow, which is closely regulated to allow for a sustained GFR. Another essential factor determining intra-renal oxygen level is the renal cellular consumption of oxygen, which is determined by energy-requiring mitochondrial consumption and tubular electrolyte transportation processes. Therefore, in addition to reduced renal perfusion, renal tissue hypoxia can be attributed to increased tissue consumption as well.79

Tubulointerstitial injury is thought to be the final common pathway in ESRD. Moreover, recent data suggest that abnormal reductions of renal oxygen tension driven by renal hypoxia, particularly in the tubulointerstitium, also plays an important role In the early stages of kidney injury through several pathological mechanisms.7882 Renal hypoxia and tissue injury are related in a cyclic fashion. Renal hypoxia induces epithelial-mesenchymal trans-differentiation of the tubular cells and activates fibroblasts, which in turn plays a crucial role in the progression of renal interstitial fibrosis and damage of peritubular capillaries.82,83 Trans-differentiated cells also stimulate the production of collagen I and α-smooth muscle actin.79 As a result, tubular atrophy occurs and further impairment of oxygen supply is induced. In addition, chronic renal hypoxia induces mitochondrial malfunction of the tubular cells and reduces energy production, eventually triggering apoptosis.82 Ischemia-induced renal hypoxia constitutes one of the most common causes of acute kidney injury. Nevertheless, persistent renal tissue hypoxia post-acute kidney injury can contribute to the development of CKD as well.84 On the other hand, hypoxemia represents a common and a direct pathway for the development of renal tissue hypoxia. A study in rabbits examined the cortical and the medullary oxygen delivery and consumption following systematic hypoxemia.81 The rabbits' kidneys were denervated to avoid sympathetic renal vasoconstriction secondary to hypoxemia. Most organs respond to hypoxemia by increasing local blood flow to attenuate hypoxia-related tissue injury. However, renal blood flow did not increase in response to hypoxemia, even when arterial oxygen concentration was reduced by more than 50%. In addition, the oxygen tension of both renal cortical and medullary tissues fell significantly following arterial oxygen content reduction by 5% to 8%, which caused by a reduction of oxygen ventilation from 21% (room air) to 17%. Oxygen delivery was reduced rapidly following reduction in arterial oxygen content, while renal oxygen consumption was maintained until arterial oxygen fell by more than 40%. Interestingly, ventilation with 11% oxygen markedly reduced mean arterial pressure (−11 ± 3 mm Hg) and GFR (−36% ± 17%). These results led the authors to conclude that renal tissue hypoxia secondary to relatively mild hypoxemia has important implications for the progression of kidney disease.

The effect of nocturnal hypoxia on kidney function in humans was recently studied in 858 subjects referred for diagnostic testing of sleep apnea, and who were followed for an average of 2.1 years.85 Assessments of sleep and oxygenation were objectively measured, and the severity of OSA was assessed based on the respiratory disturbance index score (averaged frequency of apnea, hypopnea, and respiratory effort-related arousal per sleeping hour). In this patient cohort, 44% had nocturnal hypoxia as defined by oxygen saturation < 90% for > 12% of nighttime monitoring. Compared to control subjects, patients with nocturnal hypoxia were at significant risk for accelerated kidney function loss (reductions in eGFR by ≥ 4 mL/min/1.73 m2 per year), with an odds ratio of 2.89 (95% CI: 1.25–6.67) after adjustment for respiratory disturbance index, age, BMI, diabetes, and heart failure. However, severe OSA (respiratory disturbance index > 30) was not associated with increased risk of accelerated loss of kidney function using a multivariate adjusted model of logistic regression (OR: 1.68; 0.85–3.31).


The link between hypertension and CKD was first demonstrated at the early part of the 19th century. Hypertension has multitudinous effects in the kidney including nephrosclerotic glomerulopathy, diffuse glomerulosclerosis, renal interstitial fibrosis, glomerular and peritubular fibrosis, mesangial hypertrophy, and several other pathologies that all eventually lead to decreased GFR and CKD,86 making hypertension the second most common cause of ESRD after diabetes. Experimental and epidemiological studies suggest a strong link between blood pressure and OSA. There is not only a high prevalence of OSA in hypertensive patients, but patients with OSA are at greater risk of developing incident hypertension over time.8790

Hypertension is a standalone known risk for CKD, while OSA can induce resistant hypertension through various mechanisms that include activation of renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS), endothelial dysfunction, and oxidative stress.76

A cross-sectional study compared albuminuria levels in hypertensive patients with and without OSA.91 All recruited subjects had untreated hypertension (stage I or II). Urinary albumin excretion was significantly higher in the OSA-hypertensive group (by 57%), suggesting a pathophysiological linkage between OSA and dysfunctional kidney vasculature, particularly in hypertensive patients. Interestingly, albuminuria levels correlated significantly with the severity of OSA. However, no significant difference was seen in eGFR between hypertensive-OSA patients and those without OSA. In addition, albumin to creatinine ratio was determined using 2 consecutive morning urine samples, and not by the standard 24-h urine collection method.

Another cross-sectional study examined the association between resistant hypertension and OSA in non-dialysis dependent CKD and ESRD patients.74 There was a strong association between resistant hypertension and severe OSA (AHI ≥ 30) in ESRD patients, but not in non-dialysis dependent CKD patients or in control non-CKD subjects. The results of this study might be limited by several constraints, including small sample size, use of unattended home polysomnography instead of in-lab polysomnography, and finally by not assessing essential factors that may contribute in resistant hypertension in these patients (such as volume status and aldosterone levels).

Additional evidence that links OSA, hypertension, and kidney disease comes from a recent study of 20 newly diagnosed normotensive non-diabetic OSA patients.92 The investigators examined the role of the renin-angiotensin system in OSA-related loss of kidney function. Renal hemodynamics were measured at baseline and in response to angiotensin II infusion (3 or 6 ng/kg/min × 30 min), pre and post 1 month of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. Treatment with CPAP increased renal plasma flow, and significantly reduced filtration fraction (18.9% vs. 15.3%, p = 0.004), indicating reduced intraglomerular pressure. Nonetheless, short-term CPAP treatment significantly reduced plasma aldosterone levels (149 vs 109 pmol/L, p = 0.003) and urinary total protein excretion (61 vs 56 mg/day, p = 0.003). Renal plasma flow was significantly augmented in response to angiotensin challenge post-CPAP treatment, indicating decreased renal renin-angiotensin system activity. It remains unclear whether the effect of CPAP treatment can be sustained after discontinuation of treatment.

Increased Sympathetic Tone

The relationship between the sympathetic nervous system and kidney disease is well described. Despite the kidneys being a major source of afferent signals in the sympathetic nervous system, there is much evidence showing that sympathetic hyperactivity worsens kidney function and also leads to renal structural damage.9397 Factors that increase sympathetic activity include heart failure, smoking, hypercapnia, and hypoxia-related sleep disordered breathing.98100

Somers and associates reported increased sympathetic activity in OSA patients.101 Sympathetic nervous activity was measured using direct multi-unit intraneural recordings of efferent sympathetic discharge to muscles and blood vessels and expressed as bursts/min or bursts/100 heart beats. Patients with OSA had significantly higher sympathetic activity during wakefulness in comparison with control subjects (59 bursts/min or 76 burst/100 heart beats vs 34 burst/min or 50 bursts/100 heart beats). Blood pressure and sympathetic activity gradually rose as sleep apnea progressed. Upon termination of apnea, sympathetic activity decreased while blood pressure continued to increase, reaching values as high as 240/130 mm Hg in some subjects.

The most common form of sleep disordered breathing is OSA, which has a prevalence of 1% to 3% in children.102 The pediatric literature supports a causal relationship between OSA and increased autonomic nervous system activity, where it is reported that sympathetic tone is significantly increased in children with OSA, and that this can precede cardiovascular consequences.102103 In 70 children referred for sleep disordered breathing assessment due to snoring, 33 were diagnosed with primary snoring, 20 with mild OSA, and 17 with moderate to severe OSA. Urinary catecholamine levels were compared with those from 26 healthy control children.103 The average levels of norepinephrine were higher in the combined OSA groups (29.2 vs 24.7 μmol/mol creatinine), as were levels of epinephrine (4.0 vs 2.2 μmol/mol creatinine) and dopamine (372.1 vs 293.3 μmol/mol creatinine). Linear regression analysis revealed significant associations between norepinephrine (r = 0.32) and epinephrine (r = 0.27) levels with AHI values.

Treatment with CPAP is a well-established form of OSA management. Importantly, CPAP treatment for sleep apnea decreases the OSA-related sympathetic hyperactivity.104 Levels of muscle sympathetic nerve activity were reduced significantly by CPAP treatment (from 51 to 41 burst/min). There were no changes in heart rate or blood pressure when sympathetic activity was reduced by CPAP treatment in this study.

Oxidative Stress

An imbalanced production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the natural antioxidant defense mechanisms result in a status of oxidative stress, which mediates cellular damage in a number of conditions, including structural and functional changes in the kidney.105109 Markers of cellular oxidative stress include malondialdehyde (a lipid peroxidation end product), F2-isoprostanes, and lipid hydroperoxide.108 On the other hand, sleep related breathing disorders, especially OSA, disrupt the balance between ROS removal and formation to initiate oxidative stress,110111 and thus constitute another indirect pathogenesis of sleep apnea-associated CKD.

Support for a role of oxidative stress comes from the finding that vitamin C reverses endothelial dysfunction secondary to OSA.112 Patients with established atherosclerotic disease, but who were free of other cardiovascular risk factors were excluded from the trial, and there were no differences in the cardiovascular risk profiles between the OSA and control groups. Endothelial dysfunction was tested by intra-arterial infusion of acetylcholine (vasodilator that stimulates the release of endothelial nitric oxide) and measuring forearm blood flow. Changes in blood flow were reported as percentage changes from baseline flow. The maximal increase of forearm blood flow induced by acetylcholine was significantly higher in the control group (233.6% vs 148.7%), indicating endothelial dysfunction in the OSA group, particularly when changes in forearm blood flow negatively correlated with AHI. Additionally, forearm blood flow was measured after treatment with intra-arterial vitamin C, which resulted in a significant improvement in the acetylcholine response, leading the authors to conclude that microvascular endothelial dysfunction in OSA patients may result from increased oxidative stress.

Support for a role for oxidative stress also comes from measurements of isoprostanes, which are prostaglandin-like compounds produced by non-enzymatic free radical-catalyzed peroxidation of arachidonic acid.113117 Plasma levels as well as exhaled breath condensate were significantly higher when measured in the morning (i.e., after sleep) in patients with OSA compared to age- and weight-matched healthy obese subjects, while evening levels of 8-Isoprostanes were similar in both groups.118 The positive correlation between morning levels of 8-isoprostane and AHI suggested an association between OSA and increased systemic and local levels of oxidative stress.


Treatment of moderate to severe OSA by CPAP positively affects kidney filtration by minimizing glomerular hyperfiltration, which is common in many renal disorders.119120 Kinebuchi et al. compared the filtration fractions of 21 patients with moderate-to-severe OSA before and after CPAP treatment, considering filtration fractions and renal plasma flows as indicators of glomerular hyperfiltration.121 Short-term CPAP therapy significantly reduced hyperfiltration by increasing renal plasma flow and reducing the filtration fraction. Another recent study examined the effects of short-term CPAP treatment on kidney function in 27 men with polysomnography-diagnosed OSA (AHI ≥ 20).122 Three months of CPAP treatment decreased average serum creatinine levels (0.87 to 0.82 mg/dL), and increased average eGFR levels from 72.9 to 79.3 mg/dL; these changes were statistically significant but with unreported clinical benefits. Findings from this study are limited by the lack of a control group and adjustment for other potential confounders.


A mouse model of sleep apnea based on repeated exposures to episodes of intermittent hypoxia has allowed for laboratory investigations of proposed morbidities of sleep apnea,123124 including endothelial dysfunction, cardiovascular abnormalities, immunological disorders, and kidney diseases.125127 The epidemiological and cohort studies linking sleep apnea to kidney disease led Sun and colleagues to examine the effects of sleep apnea on renal function and morphology in a mouse model of intermittent hypoxia.127 Animals were randomly assigned to either intermittent hypoxia or control groups and primary measures were collected after 3 days, and later at 1, 2, and 8 weeks. There were no changes in renal function as measured by 24-h urinary albumin, but levels of inflammatory mediators such as renal vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) were increased after 8 weeks of intermittent hypoxia. Levels of pro-fibrotic cytokines such as intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) were also elevated at all measurement time points, suggesting ongoing inflammatory and renal fibrosis processes in the kidneys after acute and chronic exposure to intermittent hypoxia. Histopathological fibrotic renal damage due to chronic intermittent hypoxia was further confirmed by increased connective tissue growth factor measurements. Evidence for early oxidative stress was provided by increases in nuclear factor-erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2, an essential transcription factor in the defense against the cytotoxic effect of oxidative stress) expression 3 days after onset of intermittent hypoxia, but with a gradual reduction after 8 weeks in parallel with increases in malondialdehyde levels and renal apoptotic cell death. The authors concluded that acute intermittent hypoxia induces inflammatory responses and protective measures against oxidative stress, while chronic intermittent hypoxia caused histopathological damage including renal cell death and fibrosis.


OSA and chronic kidney disease are potentially related in a bidirectional fashion. Epidemiological studies indicate a causal relationship between OSA and CKD, and experimental data further support the causal relationship between these diseases. End-stage renal disease likely contributes to the development of OSA, perhaps through mechanisms such as metabolic acidosis, changes in chemoreceptor sensitivity, uremic toxins, and pharyngeal narrowing due to fluid accumulation. Recent studies suggest that sleep apnea induces CKD through increases in blood pressure, oxidative stress, and renal hypoxia. In other words, OSA may be an unconventional risk for CKD.

There is clear evidence of an association between severity of OSA and extent of kidney damage. However, it should be noted that the majority of studies investigated the causal relation between CKD and OSA in dialysis-dependent patients, which may not necessarily provide details on these mechanisms in CKD patients not requiring dialysis. Additional studies are needed to investigate the clinical outcomes of aggressive treatment of OSA on renal dysfunction.


This was not an industry supported study. The authors have indicated no financial conflicts of interest.



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