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Marijuana and Sleep Apnea: What You Should Know

By Michael Howard
The efficacy of cannabis for the treatment of sleep apnea has not been scientifically established.

Sleep apnea, a disorder that causes you to stop breathing during sleep, can lead to serious health issues if left untreated. While continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is the most common and effective treatment, it can be difficult to get used to. As a result, some sleep apnea patients seek alternative treatment options. Is medical marijuana, often called cannabis, one of them? We asked an expert to weigh in.

Cannabis and Sleep Apnea

Cannabis is used to treat or manage a range of health issues, such as chronic pain, tremors, nausea, and glaucoma. According to the American Sleep Association, some research indicates that cannabis may also function as an effective sleep aid.

“There is data showing that cannabinoids [i.e., chemical compounds found in cannabis] can improve sleep in individuals suffering from fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis,” Jeff Chen, MD, MBA, Founder and former Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“However, sleep quality was not the primary outcome measured in these studies, and thus, it is unclear if the sleep improvement was due to cannabinoids improving the underlying conditions or directly modulating sleep,” Chen adds.

Although research into cannabis’ effects on sleep apnea is very limited, Chen notes that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis—has shown some promise in early clinical trials.

“There are no randomized controlled trials on the use of cannabis for sleep apnea,” he says. ”However, there have been several clinical trials using pure synthetic THC that found that, compared to placebo, it improved AHI (apnea-hypopnea index), improved self-reported sleepiness, and resulted in greater overall treatment satisfaction. A range of THC dosages from 2.5mg to 10mg an hour before sleep has been shown to outperform placebo in improving symptoms of sleep apnea.”

That said, THC is not without its downsides. These include intoxication, risk of dependency, pregnancy complications, and increased risk of schizophrenia in those who are genetically predisposed. It can also lead to cognitive deficits in adolescents. Additionally, it's important to note that cannabis is not currently a recognized medical option for sleep apnea treatment. 

While the availability of cannabis for the treatment of sleep apnea varies by state, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has noted that more evidence of the efficacy of medical marijuana for the treatment of sleep apnea is currently needed. The AASM therefore recommends that patients discuss proven therapeutic options with a licensed medical provider.

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