Pot: An Alternative Treatment for Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea affects approximately 20 million Americans—nearly one out of every 16 people—and estimates show that sleep disorders affect over 40 million people in the United States alone. Sufferers are unable to achieve restful sleep, no matter how long they spend in bed. As a result, people with sleep apnea suffer from many negative health effects and conditions as a result of the strain on their body and mind. When left untreated, sleep apnea can significantly reduce a person’s health and quality of life.

There are effective treatments for sleep apnea that are FDA approved and easily available; however, these therapies are challenging to use or prohibitively expensive. As a result, there are many alternative therapies that are gaining popularity as new research and technology are making them more effective. One such potential therapy is derived from a controversial substance: marijuana.

Marijuana and insomnia

The inability to fall asleep or stay asleep is called insomnia. Insomnia, in its chronic form, can last for weeks, months, or even years. It may be related to worry, anxiety, depression, medical/psychiatric problems, or substance abuse (learn more about insomnia here). 

Marijuana is commonly known as a treatment for insomnia and can even be legally prescribed in states that have not otherwise decriminalized marijuana. It has been shown to reduce the onset of sleep and increase the overall duration without causing excessive grogginess the next day- a common side-effect of many pharmaceutical insomnia drugs. 

Can marijuana be used to treat sleep apnea?

A 2013 proof of concept trial by the University of Illinois Departments of Medicine, Pharmacology and Biobehavioral Health Science, conducted sleep studies on 17 adults with moderate and above sleep apnea. They examined the safety, tolerability and efficacy of dranabinol, an exogenouse cannabinoid type 1 and type 2 receptor agonist in patients with obstructive sleep apnea.

They concluded:

Dronabinol treatment is safe and well-tolerated in OSA patients at doses of 2.5–10 mg daily and significantly reduces AHI in the short-term. These findings should be confirmed in a larger study in order to identify sub-populations with OSA that may benefit from cannabimimetic pharmacologic therapy.

More research is needed. The lead author of the University of Illinois study received a $5 million grant from the National Institute of Health to investigate the results in a phase 2 clinical trail. Until there is more information, most patients will rely on conventional treatment methods, each with its own obstacles.

Current therapy for sleep apnea is challenging

Positive Airway Pressure devices, called PAP, deliver pressurized ambient air through a delivery system (tubing and mask), to eliminate apnea events during sleepPAP, including CPAP, BIPAP, Auto-PAP, and ASV-PAP, is the most effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and can potentially improve the patient’s sleep overnight, dramatically improving the quality of life for individuals afflicted with sleep apnea (learn more about PAP here).

CPAP is the most effective treatment for sleep apnea and can potentially improve the patient’s sleep overnight, dramatically improving the quality of life for individuals afflicted with sleep apnea. PAP treatment is nearly 100% effective at eliminating the negative effects of sleep apnea; however, there are challenges with compliance for many patients. Several studies show that less than 50% of patients prescribed PAP therapy use the device more than four hours per night (learn more about insurance company requirements for compliance here).

Currently available and widely accepted alternatives to CPAP include sleep apnea surgery and dental devices (click here to learn more about these options). These treatments vary in their effectiveness for patients depending on adherence and severity of sleep apnea. Insurance coverage for alternative therapies is also limiting, while CPAP therapy is typically covered (learn more about that here).

While awareness of sleep apnea increases, more attention will be paid to developing effective treatments.

To find out if you suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness that may indicate an undiagnosed sleep disorder, like sleep apnea, take this quiz:



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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in November 2013 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness. 

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