Sleep is critical for maintaining a healthy body and mind, but unfortunately, many people suffer from sleep disorders which can prevent natural, healing sleep. Sleep apnea is one such chronic sleep disorder which can cause serious health issues. While machines known as 'C-pap' are often the solution, several individuals have been experimenting with treating sleep apnea with cannabis.
Although snoring is a symptom, sleep apnea is more than just heavy, loud snoring. Sleep apnea, affecting about 30 million Americans, a is a sleep disorder which blocks the airways, disrupts sleep, and may contribute to dozens of other medical issues. These may include high blood pressure or heart problems, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, liver issues, and can even cause complications with prescriptions and recover from surgery.
Understanding Sleep Apnea
As stated, sleep apnea is more than snoring, although this may be one of the symptoms. Technically, there are three forms of sleep apnea, although because symptoms overlap it may be difficult to diagnose.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea ? This is the most common form of sleep apnea which causes the muscles in the throat to relax. This causes the airway to close, preventing oxygen from getting to the brain. The brain responds by waking the sleeper just enough to reopen the airway resulting in a choking or gasping sound.
- Central Sleep Apnea ? This form of apnea is caused by the brain's inability to send the proper signals to the breathing muscles. Again, this ultimately results in waking the sleeper with a shortness of breath. Many individuals report not being able to fall asleep easily or not staying asleep.
- Complex Sleep Apnea ? Complex simply means a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.
Diagnosing sleep apnea usually involves a sleep study where the individual is hooked up to several monitors while they sleep to accurately track the symptoms of their problem. A similar process occurs during research on sleep apnea and cannabis use.
Different forms of sleep apnea generally have very similar symptoms which can make diagnosing the exact type a patient suffers from difficult. Symptoms may include:
- Loud snoring, most common with obstructive sleep apnea
- Breathing stops during sleep (usually witnessed by another person)
- Frequently waking followed by shortness of breath (an indicator of central sleep apnea)
- Dry mouth or a sore throat upon waking
- Morning headaches
- Chronic insomnia
- Excessive sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Inability to focus
Depending on the type of sleep apnea cannabis treatment you are curious about, there are several causes or risk factors which contribute to the chance of developing the sleep disorder to begin with.
The risk of developing Obstructive Sleep Apnea increases with any of the following:
- Excess Weight
- Neck Circumference greater than 17" (male) or 15" (females).
- Older in Age
- Genetic Predisposition (family history)
- Narrowed Airway (also inherited)
- Smoking (anything)
- Using alcohol
- Using sedatives, tranquilizers, or opiates.
- Chronic Sinus Congestion
While Central Sleep Apnea has a much shorter list of causes:
- Heart Disorders
- Use of narcotics
While sleep apnea and cannabis may, in fact, work together healthfully, the most common form of treatment for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This pressurized mask is worn over the face while the individual sleeps to help keep enough airflow to prevent the airway from closing.
While this has been proven an effective therapy for sleep apnea when it is used as recommended, many patients find the mask bothersome. Some studies show as much as 83% of patients fail to follow the prescribed regimen.
More invasive methods of treating sleep apnea involve surgery to remove tissue from the back of the mouth and throat, jaw repositioning, surgically implanted plastic rods, or even creating an entirely new airway, a procedure called a tracheostomy.
THC Shows Promise for Sleep Apnea
The first notion cannabis may help in treating sleep apnea came from an animal study in 2002 published by researchers at the University of Illinois. This study stated delta9-THC stabilized respiration during all sleep stages.
The researchers also noted that the study "suggests an important role for endocannabinoids in maintaining autonomic stability during sleep."
However, more recently, synthetic cannabinoids have also shown promise in human clinical trials. Published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2013, clinical trials using dronabinol, the synthetic version of delta9-THC. The study showed the compound was well-tolerated and reduced symptoms by 30% over the course of the three-week trial period.
Researchers suggest the drug as an alternative or adjunctive therapy for obstructive sleep apnea, but also suggest larger trials are needed before a formal treatment of sleep apnea with cannabis is approved.
So, in January of this year, the same researchers published their findings from yet another clinical trial. In the January 2018 edition of the journal, Sleep, researchers published the findings from a trial involving 73 adults over the course of six weeks. Results showed individuals consuming 10mg of dronabinol experienced the greatest reduction in apnea symptoms.
This series of studies has generated promise of better treatments for those suffering from sleep apnea. Dr. Phyllis Zee, a professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago stated in an interview with Medical News Today,
“There is a tremendous need for effective, new treatments [for] obstructive sleep apnea. The CPAP device targets the physical problem but not the cause. The drug targets the brain and nerves that regulate the upper airway muscles. It alters the neurotransmitters from the brain that communicate with the muscles.”
Skepticism from Traditional Medicine
The Minnesota Department of Health added obstructive sleep apnea to the qualifying list of conditions for medical marijuana in November of 2017. This move prompted the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to publish a public statement dissuading the use of cannabis for sleep apnea noting insufficient evidence of effectiveness, tolerability, and safety, as well as, unreliable delivery methods.
Medical Marijuana Translation
Naturally, if a synthetic compound can perform a certain task, then the organic version should produce similar results. However, here are a couple of tips when using cannabis for treating sleep apnea based on the research above:
No Smoking! ? Smoking anything can exacerbate the problem. Airways are already weakened, so sending hot smoke and tiny, burning embers into the lungs is probably not the best approach. Look to tinctures, edibles, and beverages like Keef Cola.
Delta9-THC Isolate ? The studies were done with dronabinol, which is a chemical replica of delta9-THC. Therefore, it doesn't contain other cannabinoids or terpenes found in the plant. Look for products made with a THC extract such as an isolate or distillate.
Dosing ? When new to THC the key is to start low and gradually increase your dose. This process is called "titration." Start with 2.5-5mg about an hour before bed. Stay at this dose for 2-4 days before slowly increasing to a dose of 10mg. (Veteran consumers may find higher doses necessary due to tolerance.)
Sleep is Vital for Health
Getting the right amount of healing sleep contributes to our overall health and well-being. Without quality sleep – brain function, emotional and physical health, stamina and performance – all suffer drastically. Lack of sleep can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and stroke. Chronic sleep disorders like sleep apnea could be doing more damage to your body than you realize.
While trials are still ongoing, clearly cannabis, specifically THC products, have a promising future to help treat sleep apnea and other types of sleep disorders. Since we know better sleep can lead to better health, if you or someone you know suffer from sleep apnea cannabis may be just what the doctor ordered!