Can Cannabis Help Treat Sleep Apnea?

Are you often tired, even after a full night of supposed sleep? Do you spontaneously wake up at night for no reason? Or maybe you just snore so loudly your partner wakes you up to get you to stop?

All of these are manifestations of a condition known as sleep apnea, estimated to afflict over 100 million people worldwide. The most interesting part, however, is that over 80% of cases of sleep apnea are undiagnosed.

Let’s rephrase that: most people with sleep apnea don’t know they have it. Are you one of them? And to the point of this article, how could cannabis possibly help?

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing becomes interrupted during sleep, sometimes even stopping completely. There are two types of sleep apnea. One, called “central sleep apnea” is neurological and has its origins in the brain, and there’s not much we can do about it.

The other more common type is called “obstructive sleep apnea” and is more physical in origin, occurring when the soft muscles in the back of the throat lose their tone during sleep and collapse into the back of the throat. The lungs keep expanding like normal, but the obstruction by the throat tissue creates a seal.

Sometimes the air will pull through and the flapping of the relaxed muscles creates snoring. But more often the seal holds, leading to sudden gasping, unnerving choking sounds, and, most critically, a disrupted sleep cycle.

You don’t even need to wake up to have your sleep cycle disrupted. Often, the choking and the cessation of breath will bounce your sleep cycle out of the deep delta state of restoration and into a semi-lucid, not-quite-awake state. Thus, most people don’t know they have it, but the damage has been done. The natural sleep cycle has been disrupted, as have all the restorative, healing, and balancing functions that occur in deep sleep.

How Cannabis Can Help

Although infamous for its sleep-inducing effects, it seems a bit far-fetched that a dreamy green herb like cannabis could help with something like choking on your own throat. But the scientists are on it with statistical significance and peer-reviewed research!

Several studies in the last decade have investigated how cannabis affects sleep apnea. One study found that THC improved the sleep apnea index by 32%. Another small trial found that 100% of participants who received THC pills had improvement in their condition, with less interrupted sleep.

THC Keeps the Air Flowing

So how is this possible?

The relaxation of muscle tone of the esophagus is controlled by serotonin, specifically by the 5HT2A receptor. THC, it turns out, blocks this receptor, thus blocking the collapse of the esophagus that constricts airflow and leads to sleep apnea.

Naturally, there are tradeoffs when using cannabis to treat sleep apnea. While cannabis is known for improving deep sleep, it also decreases the dreaming REM stage when memories are consolidated. But for someone unknowingly and frequently choking in their sleep, perhaps that is an acceptable trade-off.

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Can Cannabis Help Me Stop Snoring?

If your deep sleep sounds like a midnight lawnmower, chances are you barely even notice it. It probably doesn’t consciously bother you all that much. You go to bed and wake up like nothing happened.

Your partner, however, may have a somewhat different opinion…

So, for the sake of your significant other and your own health (we’ll get to that), please read on.

We’ve got some good news for you.

What Is Snoring and Sleep Apnea, Anyway?

Snoring is often a manifestation of a condition known as sleep apnea, in which breathing becomes interrupted or even completely stops during sleep. A person may gasp, make disturbing choking sounds, or even completely wake up. This disrupts the sleep cycle, which, in turn, disrupts all the restorative biological processes that occur during sleep. Most of the time a person has no idea they snore at all, oblivious to how much their sleep cycle is actually disturbed.

There are two kinds of sleep apnea, central, which has a neurological basis, and obstructive. Obstructive apnea is the kind we are concerned with here. This is where snoring comes from.

In obstructive apnea, the soft muscles in the back of the throat become completely relaxed, eventually collapsing and closing off the throat. The suction of the breath attempts to suck in the air, but the throat tissue constrictions the flow, turning the esophagus into some sort of demented whoopee cushion.

Why Does It Matter?

Maybe you don’t have a partner. Or maybe you are blessed with one who sleeps so deeply they don’t mind sleeping with a chainsaw. Why should you care?

Because it’s more than just the sound. Sleep apnea and snoring disrupt the sleep cycle. You may not be conscious of it, but when your breath becomes obstructed, you are bouncing yourself out of the natural deep sleep states that are essential to well-being. This disrupts all the restorative biological processes that occur during sleep.

This can lead to poor concentration, persistent tiredness despite “sleeping” a full night, moodiness, irritability, weight gain, or even more serious complications like cardiovascular problems, stroke, and even heart failure.

It’s not just the noise.

Cannabis to the Rescue!

So where does the green come in?

It’s well known that heavy indica strains of cannabis can improve deep sleep and help with insomnia. In the last 10 years, a number of studies have come out looking at how different cannabinoids may affect obstructive sleep apnea. The first ever sleep apnea and cannabis human trial in 2002 found that THC improved the sleep apnea index by 32%. Pretty impressive results for the first trial.

A more recent study in 2013 included giving cannabis pills to 17 patients—100% of them found improvement in their conditions. Promising results! In addition, a researcher investigating these effects found that THC increases the muscle tone in the upper airway during sleep by blocking a serotonin-mediated pathway that triggers the loss of muscle tone in the first place. Stop the collapse of the esophageal tissue, no blocked air passages, and thus no more snoring or choking or interrupted sleep.

Sounds like a good plan for you or that wonderful person who may or may not be highly irritated at sleeping next to a war movie soundtrack.

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