Cannabis and Sleep Apnea

Can cannabis help sleep apnea? So far, the research points to yes. The main psychoactive chemical in marijuana has shown promising results for patients who suffer from sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a condition in which tissues in your throat malform to obstruct your breathing as you sleep. This results in periods throughout the night during which you stop breathing and wake up, even if you aren’t fully aware of it.

The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates more than 22 million Americans suffer from this condition, and some 80 percent of cases go undiagnosed. This is a big problem because sleep apnea disturbs the normal sleep cycle, and it has been linked to all sorts of cardiovascular problems like heart disease and stroke. It also causes grogginess and compromised function during the day.

How to treat sleep apnea: current methods

The mainstay of treatment for sleep apnea so far has been a bulky electrical device called a CPAP machine. CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” Basically, you wear a mask that forces air into your lungs as you sleep, pushing away the tissue obstruction that causes you to stop breathing during the night.

Can cannabis help sleep apnea and help get people off CPAP machines
A CPAP machine forces air into the lungs of an individual with sleep apnea.

The CPAP machine is effective, but because it’s bulky and expensive, many patients don’t comply with the prescription.

In extreme cases of sleep apnea, people undergo surgery. Sometimes, it doesn’t cure the problem, and recovery can be grueling.

What causes sleep apnea?

Many of the causes of sleep apnea are mechanical. People who are overweight experience it more because of the extra bulk, and people who smoke tobacco may experience it because of throat inflammation, among other causes.

But the latest research shows a component of many cases of sleep apnea stems from the central nervous system, and that’s where cannabis can help.

You have a flap of flesh in the back of your throat that blocks the stuff you eat and drink from going up into your nasal cavity. In sleep apnea, this flap descends to block your airway when you sleep.

Can cannabis help sleep apnea by clearing the airways?

The vagus nerve helps control your throat and gut — including your pharynx. This is the anatomical part of your throat that causes sleep apnea.

It’s a thick bulb of the vagus nerve called the nodose ganglion that controls the muscles in the pharynx and the fleshy flap implicated in sleep apnea. The nodose ganglion is what tells your throat muscles what to do and when.

In many cases of sleep apnea, an excess of the neurochemical serotonin stimulates the nodose ganglion, causing it to malform the throat muscles to block the airway.

Can cannabis help sleep apnea?

Taking Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, helps block serotonin from affecting the nodose ganglion. The result? No sleep apnea, in many cases.

Dronabinol, sold under the brand name Marinol, is a pharmaceutical distillate of THC. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently approves dronabinol to counteract the side effects of cancer treatment and some other uses.

cannabis can help sleep apnea? Dronabinol seems to say yes.

Lately, researchers from the University of Illinois have completed the third and most rigorous phase of clinical trials to get the FDA to approve the drug for treatment of sleep apnea. As of January 2017, the trials testing dronabinol for sleep apnea have proven successful, according to the medical journal Sleep Review.

It’s never a good idea to use any drug outside the supervision of a doctor, and this article is not providing individual medical advice. However, one thing is clear for people who self medicate with marijuana for sleep apnea: Choosing edible marijuana is preferable.

One of the major causes of sleep apnea is inflammation of the airways by the smoke particles from tobacco. If you extrapolate those findings, smoking marijuana could make your sleep apnea worse.

How can cannabis help sleep apnea most effectively? Aside from using edibles, be sure to check out the top strains of cannabis for sleep.

References For “Can Cannabis Help Sleep Apnea?”

“What Is Sleep Apnea?”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

National Institutes of Health

Functional role for cannabinoids in respiratory stability during sleep.
Carley DW, Paviovic S, Janelidze M, Radulovacki M.


June 2002

Nodose Ganglion Definition

Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary


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