What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition that causes people to have pauses and shallow breaths while they’re sleeping. These pauses can last anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or more. Well over five million Canadian adults have been diagnosed with sleep apnea—or are considered to be in the high-risk category for experiencing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that leads to poor sleep and other longer-term health problems, such as serious heart conditions and high blood pressure. Folks with sleep apnea are also at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and metabolic disorders. Left untreated, sleep apnea can make restorative sleep impossible—most people with the disorder experience daytime fatigue, drowsiness and irritability.
The current treatment protocol for sleep apnea is surgery or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. A CPAP machine comprises a face mask that’s used to regulate breathing and reduce pauses in breathing. The CPAP machine is effective when used nightly, but it’s also bulky, somewhat uncomfortable and often leaves facial imprints from wearing the device all night long.
Can Cannabis Help Relieve Sleep Apnea?
A 2002 study at the University of Illinois showed that cannabis has the potential to help patients with sleep apnea. The study used animal models of sleep apnea and tested the effects of various cannabinoids on breathing during sleep. The study found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and oleamide, two cannabinoids found in marijuana, were able to stabilize respiration during all stages of sleep.
Synthetic Cannabinoids Reduce Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
Dronabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid that’s typically used to treat nausea associated with chemotherapy, might be useful in helping people with sleep apnea. Dronabinol (also known as Marinol) has already been approved by the FDA for the treatment of nausea, but it would need to be approved again in order for the medication to be prescribed for sleep apnea. Dronabinol has been shown to help open up the airways, allowing for better airflow and decreased sleep apnea.
A 2013 human trial showed the efficacy of Dronabinol for easing symptoms of sleep apnea. Seventeen subjects were monitored over a three-week period and participants were given varying doses of Dronabinol (either 2.5, 5, or 10 mg) before they went to sleep. The subjects were then monitored to see how the drug affected their sleep apnea.
Subjects in the study experienced a 32% overall reduction in sleep apnea. Though this isn’t as significant a reduction in sleep apnea as is experienced with a CPAP machine, researchers concluded that higher doses are more likely to produce even better results.
Another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial was conducted by RespireRx Pharmaceuticals, formerly known as Cortex Pharmaceuticals Inc. The trial completed its second phase of testing with Dronabinol. Both the first and second study had positive outcomes—specifically, participants receiving 10 mg doses reported statistically significant declines in sleepiness and expressed the greatest overall satisfaction with treatment—vs. those receiving 2.5 mg of Dronabinol or a placebo.
Though these studies were conducted using synthetic cannabinoids, they’re consistent with previous findings using natural marijuana. Patients who dislike using CPAP machines or are looking for an alternative to help ease their sleep apnea symptoms may find relief with medical cannabis.
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