Could Cannabinoids Help Relieve Sleep Apnea?

By Paul Gaita 05/10/18

A new study examined whether synthetic cannabinoids could provide a new and non-invasive form of relief for apnea patients.

man sleeping with CPAP machine

Sleep apnea is a disorder that leaves an estimated 22 million Americans with consistently poor sleep and in some cases, a life-threatening illness.

The condition is defined by the muscles in the throat, which relax and constrict the airways—sometimes completely—and in addition to waking the sufferer throughout the night, can also lead to issues with high blood pressure and stroke.

As High Times noted, treatment is relegated to a sleep apnea mask or a dental appliance, both of which are difficult to use, or surgery, which can be expensive.

But a new study suggests that a synthetic cannabinoid might provide a new and non-invasive form of relief for apnea patients.

The study, published in the January 2018 issue of Sleep—the official publication of the Sleep Research Society—was conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, who focused on 73 patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea.

After determining the level of fatigue prior to treatment for each participant, the researchers divided them into three groups and gave each one of three treatments: a placebo pill, a low dose of cannabinoid medication and a higher dose of dronabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, and appetite loss in people with HIV. 

What the researchers appeared to find was that the patients who received dronabinol reported feeling more rested, with fewer apnea-related symptoms than the other groups, especially at the point in their sleep cycle when the condition caused the most amount of problems. Additionally, those who qualified as having severe apnea reported the highest level of improvement. 

Additional testing may provide further support for the researchers' findings and move medicine closer to an oral treatment for sleep apnea.

Dr. Jerald Simmons, founder of Comprehensive Sleep Medicine Associates, says such a solution can't come soon enough for those who deal with the exhaustion and other symptoms of the disorder.

"There are no medications available that people can take to treat this, so if there’s a medication that works it would be very helpful," he said in the High Times coverage. "It could help decrease these other issues that sleep apnea can cause."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.