Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that often goes undiagnosed simply because the sufferer does not even realize that they have the condition. It causes interruptions to a person’s breathing while they sleep which may last from 10 seconds to several minutes, and which can occur several times an hour. These pauses in breathing are known as “apneas.” Sleep apnea is also often characterized by shallow breathing known as a “hypopnea.”
Even though the sufferer may not be aware of it, sleep apnea often disturbs sleep and results in fatigue throughout the day. This can in turn lead to headaches, high blood pressure, memory trouble, irritability, and even strokes.
Could marijuana perhaps be used as a novel new treatment for sleep apnea? Let’s find out.
Marijuana and Sleep
Marijuana has probably been used to help people sleep since it was discovered many thousands of years ago, and both recreational and medicinal users continue to use it as a sleep aid to this day. Almost every user has experienced the relaxing and soothing effect that comes from marijuana use, particularly from a strong indica strain.
Marijuana can help relieve the symptoms of sleep apnea by giving chronically fatigued sufferers their much-needed rest. A 2007 study published in Chemistry & Biology took a look at the use of cannabis compounds, administered in the form of Sativex, in relation to sleep disturbances for a variety of disorders. The Sativex was able to help patients get some much-needed rest and did so without causing tolerance or harmful side-effects.
Relief of Sleep Apnea in Clinical Trials
Marijuana may be able to relieve some of the symptoms of sleep apnea, but can it be used to treat the disorder itself? Clinical research seems to suggest that this may indeed be the case.
In a 2002 study, researchers set out to observe the effects of THC, marijuana’s most abundant and psychoactive compound, on “sleep-disordered respiration” in rats. They found that THC was effectively able to stabilize respiration and decrease apneas during all sleep stages. These findings led researchers to focus on a pharmacological treatment using cannabinoids for the alleviation of sleep apnea. This was an interesting suggestion, as sleep apnea is typically managed with behavioral changes. Marijuana seems to offer a chemical option.
Based on those promising animal results, a team of researchers in 2012 decided to run a similar study with human participants. The researchers were confident that THC could be used to effectively treat sleep apnea, so they instead decided to jump one step ahead and looked at the safety and tolerability of the compound. They reported that THC was safe and well-tolerated, meaning that it did not cause serious side-effects or sleep degradation.
Armed with the knowledge that cannabinoids could safely be used to improve sleep apnea, researchers in a recent 2014 study began looking at how it was able to do so. They found that THC, when injected, was able to directly suppress something known as “5-HT-Induced reflex apnea.” Sounds like good news for sleep apnea sufferers.