Last year we wrote a post on—that’s right—marijuana as a potential treatment for sleep apnea. Since then, midterm elections have brought a new wave of legalization to the West Coast: Alaska and Oregon both decriminalized recreational use of the drug. So we thought it was worthwhile to take a second look at whether pot, scientifically or politically, could become a valid treatment for sleep apnea.
The Science behind Smoking
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a breathing disorder that occurs when the back of the throat relaxes during sleep, blocking off the airway. This causes gasping, choking, and oxygen deprivation to the brain, preventing the subject from ever reaching a deep sleep and resulting in serious long-term health consequences.
Several studies have supported the hypothesis that cannabis can alleviate the symptoms of this sleep disorder. A study conducted in 2002 by researchers at the University of Illinois found that THC and oleanide, both types of medical marijuana, improved breathing patterns in rats with the condition in all stages of sleep. In fact, apnea episodes decreased by 42 to 58 percent. The higher the dosage of the drugs, it was discovered, the greater the improvement.
In 2013, the head researcher from the 2002 examination, Doctor David Carley, oversaw another study that was the first to investigate the connection between marijuana and sleep apnea in people. After administering a THC-containing pill to test subjects for three weeks just before bedtime, he observed a 32% decrease in apnea events in humans.
Dr. Carley has been granted $5 million from the National Institute of Health to further investigate the findings, and he hopes to develop a commercially available pill.
But on the other hand, several studies such as this one have linked pot use to decreased sleep quality. Experts maintain that pot is not a valid solution to issues like stress or insomnia. This throws some doubt on the utility of pot to aid in sound sleep.
How does this potential treatment compare to CPAP therapy?
In comparison to existing remedies, the benefits of marijuana are modest. CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) therapy, which involves pumping pressurized air through the airway to keep it open, has a nearly 100% success rate and can completely alleviate sleep apnea symptoms. Plus, it is legal, accessible, and even covered by insurance.
However, one of the disadvantages of CPAP machines is lack of compliance on the part of patients. Hypothetically, patients might find it easier to pop a pill than wear a mask. But this route still has to be tested and developed.
The Situation in the States
Right now, four states—Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon—have legalized recreational marijuana. 19 more, plus the District of Colombia, permit medical marijuana.
Where does that leave California? The Golden State was in fact the first to embrace medical marijuana. We’re surrounded by states that have legalized the drug. But in 2010 Californians struck down by a large margin a measure to open it to non-medical use.
That doesn’t mean that eventual legalization is out of the question. In the 2012 midterms, voters agreed to reclassify drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, which indicates at least some disillusionment with strict drug sentencing. And it’s very likely that legalizing cannabis could be back on the ballot in 2016 thanks to the work of organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project.
So where does that leave us?
Pot as a sleep apnea treatment—in both political and scientific terms—is still in very preliminary stages. Much research still has to be done to determine its effectiveness in curing apneas. Increased legalization across the United States could open the door for more in-depth studies of marijuana’s effects. But until then, the best option for treating the sleep disorder is still a CPAP machine, or, in a serious case, surgery.
Other posts you may find intersting:
- Pot: An Alternative Treatment for Sleep Apnea
- Jaw Surgery to Treat Sleep Apnea
- What is Hypoglossal Nerve Stimulation to Treat Sleep Apnea?
- What is CPAP? The Difference Between CPAP, APAP and Bilevel
Photo Credit: Chuck Coker