Can Cannabis Help Treat Sleep Apnea?

November 17, 2017

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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