Affecting up to 6 percent of the U.S. adult population, sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which a person stops breathing during sleep. Typically, the brainstem tells our body to breathe — and perform other vital functions — automatically. People who suffer from sleep apnea, however, experience airway blockages or other problems during sleep that prevents this otherwise important function from happening.
There’s hope on the horizon for the millions of people who suffer from sleep apnea. According to a study published in the journal Sleep, a synthetic form of cannabis may reduce the frequency of sleep apneas. The drug is known as dronabinol, and it was initially used to treat and prevent vomiting in cancer patients. The synthesized form of cannabis’ primary psychoactive compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), dronabinol stimulates appetite while also suppressing nausea. However, there’s new evidence suggesting that it may also help individuals suffering from sleep apnea.
For the study, researchers recruited 73 men and women suffering from moderate to severe sleep apnea. Participants were placed into one of three groups. One group was given 2.5 mg of dronabinol before bedtime; another was given 10 mg of dronabinol before bedtime, and the third group was given a placebo. All participants took their respective drugs for six weeks while researchers closely monitored their sleeping habits.
After analyzing the results, researchers concluded that participants in the 2.5-mg group experienced 10.5 fewer sleep apnea events per hour after taking dronabinol while participants in the 10-mg group experienced 12.9 fewer events. Patients in the control group underwent no significant differences in improvement.
Although THC is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, participants in this study didn’t experience any psychotropic effects. Eighty-eight percent, however, reported at least one adverse side effect of the drug. Most of these side effects were minor, with the most serious being a single instance of diarrhea and vomiting. Researchers say this event could be related to dronabinol, but there’s no definitive proof linking it to the drug.
The most common treatment for sleep apnea involves wearing a device that forces the person’s airways to remain open during sleep. Known as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, many people stop wearing it because of its large, cumbersome size. With new research shining a light on dronabinol, perhaps we’ll see new medications available shortly for the millions of people who suffer from sleep apnea.