Published by Medical Hypotheses in 2009
This article will suggest that moderate sleep apnea may have an adaptive benefit, the reduction of nocturnal, respiratory heat loss, that may have caused it to be selected for despite the associated disadvantages. Sleep apnea is caused by the collapse of the throat, specifically the pharyngeal airway, during sleep and can result in discomfort and hypoxia. The large size of the fleshy structures in the pharynx and hypotonicity of the pharyngeal musculature are what cause humans, and many other species of mammals, to be susceptible to apnea. There are many functional and anatomical parallels between sleep apnea and a well known, thermoregulatory response that minimizes respiratory cooling in the lower airways known as reflex bronchoconstriction.
Bronchoconstriction involves the constriction of the inner airways, the bronchioles, in response to cold air, a reaction that acts to warm inspired air before it makes contact with the more sensitive lower airways and alveoli. Because air is colder at night and body temperature drops severely during sleep, sleep apnea may represent a similar protective, thermoregulatory adaptation. When the pharynx is collapsed, the diameter of the pharyngeal airway decreases, allowing increased intermolecular collisions between inspired air and the epithelial walls of the upper airway.
An increase in the number of collisions facilitates the transference of both warmth and humidity to inspired air before it reaches the more sensitive lower airway resulting in the maintenance of internal, core temperature and alveolar heat retention. In fact, sleep apnea can be conceptualized as a functional reversal of the thermoregulatory process of panting, where the pharynx is highly dilated instead of collapsed. Given the disorder associated with sleep apnea, the absence of a disease state secondary to surgical correction, the fact that the disorder is exclusive to warm-blooded animals, the high proclivity for collapse documented in pregnant mothers, and the functional similarities between collapse and reflex bronchoconstriction, it appears that the phenomenon may represent an evolutionary trade-off that helped to minimize respiratory cooling.