sleep apnea cannabis

Marijuana as Treatment for Sleep Apnea? California is one step closer

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.


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Julia Rodriguez

Julia joined Advanced Sleep Medicine Services, Inc. in 2011 with a background in sales, marketing and customer service. She is currently the vice president of marketing and operations and enjoys the opportunity to educate and interact with those looking to improve their health through better sleep.

Could marijuana be a treatment for sleep apnea? With legalization of pot becoming more likely, we study cannabis's effect on curing sleep apnea.

Buzzing off to sleep: Marijuana, insomnia and sleep apnea

Americans are more stressed now than ever. We often work long hours in high-pressure environments, then try to squeeze in personal obligations, chores, and daily living tasks in the remaining time. No wonder so many people report having trouble falling asleep at night, staying asleep, or waking up feeling refreshed and energized.

But lots of us are leery of taking sleep aids, and with good reason. Many “sleeping pills” have troublesome side effects, and can be addictive. Because of this, cannabis is increasingly seen as a good choice. Can cannabis really help you get to sleep?

The short answer is, yes, it seems so. Anecdotally, people have been using cannabis as a sleep aid for centuries. It is well known that the stain of cannabis called indica has a deep physically-relaxing effect. In addition to relaxing the body, marijuana of any strain can also ease the mind, helping users to let go of worries and anxieties that often plague us at night.

Scientific research to corroborate the role of marijuana as a sleep aid is still in its infancy, thanks to marijuana’s classification as a Schedule One drug, which severely limits research opportunities. However, one paper published in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports in April of 2017 seems to confirm that THC may decrease the amount of time it takes people to fall asleep. Other studies also find similar results, that cannabis use reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, and lengthens the time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep.

For those who might be interested in using cannabis for sleep therapy but do not want the psychotropic effects, there is also evidence that CBDs, non-psychoactive compounds found in cannabis, may have the same positive effect on insomnia.

There is also research into whether marijuana can help with sleep apnea, a condition that causes the airways to close during the night and disrupt breathing. One study, conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern Medicine, and published in the journal SLEEP, found that a type of synthetic THC called dronabinol has some positive implications for using THC for sleep apnea, possibly by increasing airway muscle tone. However, there still has not been enough scientific testing to positively confirm these results.

Still, there is currently no other drug treatment for the disorder, which effects some 30 million people in the US and is linked to numerous health problems. Untreated, sleep apnea increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes, and causes cognitive impairment. It can also raise the risk of having a car accident, or indeed accidents of any sort, because of the chronic sleepiness it causes. The only treatment currently available is a continuous positive airway pressure device, or CPAP, that is worn during sleep and forces air into the lungs to prevent breathing pauses. But it is cumbersome, often awkward or uncomfortable, and most people stop using it.

Why is cannabis useful as a sleep aid? It’s not just one factor. Cannabis has many different natural chemicals that affect sleep. Two of the most important are cannabinoids and terpenes.

Cannabinoids include CBD, CBN (or cannabinol), which seems to have powerful sedative effects, and THC. THC, which is the main psychoactive element in marijuana, has been found to increase time spent in slow-wave sleep, the most restorative part of the sleep cycle.

Terpenes are tiny, aromatic molecules in cannabis that control the way it smells and “tastes.” Each strain has a different combination of terpenes – there are more than 150 different ones that have been identified so far. Studies show that terpenes have effects on energy, mood, sleepiness and alertness. Some of the most common terpenes identified as helpful to sleep are myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, terpineol, and linalool. Myrcene has sedative effects and is also an anti-inflammatory. Caryophyllene and terpineol relieve stress and pain. So does limonene, which also elevates serotonin levels in the brain. Linalool increases adenosine, a sedating hormone that helps bring on sleep.

In states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal, marijuana may be an effective, safe treatment for insomnia and sleep apnea. Of course, you should have a conversation with your doctor first, just as you would before using any other sleep aid or supplement.

You don’t have put up with being tired all the time. If marijuana is legal where you live, it may be that a toke or two is your safest ticket to dreamland.

Buzzing off to sleep: Marijuana, insomnia and sleep apnea Americans are more stressed now than ever. We often work long hours in high-pressure environments, then try to squeeze in personal