A dietary supplement for sleep apnea shows promise for treating sleeping disorders during research. However, we still don’t know how the supplement affects people suffering from the long term consequences of the disorder.
Mark Levy DDS is an advocate for the treatment of sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, commonly known as OSA. He and his staff stay on the cutting edge of technology and advancements for the treatment of sleeping disorders.
There are a variety of treatment options for OSA. Patients are prescribed everything from CPAP machines to dental appliances in order to keep their airways open. These devices work by preventing the airway collapse or obstruction that leads to repeated pauses in breathing throughout the night. When left untreated, the pauses in breathing can lead to other health complications such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even death. There are also a number of short term consequences including daytime drowsiness, difficulties concentrating, and memory issues. Untreated OSA contributes to a large number of vehicle accidents, workplace accidents, and other problems caused by the culmination of poor sleep and reduced night time oxygen levels.
Scientists and researchers have extensively studied OSA and its effects over the last several years. We continue to learn how devastating this sleeping disorder actually is. Thankfully, this research has also provided us with additional treatment options for patients who don’t tolerate CPAP machines. Despite all the medical breakthroughs and advances in treatment options, there’s no current drug treatment for sleep apnea. However, researchers at MIT may be changing that.
The new dietary supplement for sleep apnea is a chemical derived from the African yohimbe tree’s bark. Researchers have discovered that this yohimbine reverses the cause of OSA when tested in animals. This supplement isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used by humans for a variety of other reasons such as an aphrodisiac, and a way to burn fat. However, the FDA has not approved yohimbine for these uses. Unfortunately, despite the success they’ve had so far, the supplement is not without complications.
Before a new medication or supplement can be approved, it must go through rigorous testing. During this phase we often learn of complications which can arise for individuals who have certain health conditions. MIT reports:
Chi-Sang Poon, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), says that while the results of the obstructive sleep apnea study are promising, people should not begin taking the drug on their own, especially those who also suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, or anxiety disorders.
“People who have these problems could be at risk if they use yohimbine,” says Poon, the senior author of the study. “Before clinical trials are done, it is not advisable for the general public to try this on their own.”
Most OSA patients dislike the CPAP machine despite its effectiveness. This has led to an increase in alternate treatment options such as custom made dental appliances. The CPAP machine is largely regarded as being uncomfortable and inconvenient. The compliance rate is horrible. Nearly half of patients never use it at all, while a large number stop using it within the first six months. The general discontent with CPAP therapy has led scientists to seek a drug treatment option for OSA.
Researchers have examined potential drug targets to help prevent or minimize OSA episodes. This led researchers to target the hypoglossal nerve. This nerve controls the tongue and researchers were hoping that stimulating this nerve would help keep airways open. However, no drugs tested for this purpose have been successful.
The MIT research team took this idea and focused on a new approach. Other studies have shown that two specific groups of neurons in the brain stem control the hypoglossal nerve. During sleep, the activity of these neurons decreases sharply. This is especially true during the REM phase of sleep, which is when OSA typically occurs.
“It is as if these cells become sleepy and ‘forget’ to do their job,” Poon says, so the researchers sought to find a way to re-activate these neuron groups. They decided to try yohimbine, which is known to inhibit norepinephrine receptors found on these cells that constrain their excitation of hypoglossal neurons.
This approach was counterintuitive, Poon says, because the cells’ activity is already suppressed during sleep, and blocking these receptors would be like beating a dead horse.
Poon took a chance and tested what would happen. Surprisingly, for reasons not fully understood yet, the yohimbine treatment stimulated the neurons and restored their function against OSA in rats.
“It worked wonders,” Poon says. “Everything seemed to get back to normal again.”
Researchers must now work with pharmaceutical companies in order to create the dietary supplement for sleep apnea and test it in human patients. They must also determine the safe and effective dosage levels, which are currently unknown. This is why it’s important that you don’t begin using this supplement to self-medicate your OSA. While the drug is relatively safe in healthy patients, individuals with other health concerns may be at risk.
“Yohimbine is a centuries-old drug that people have been using for other reasons,” Poon says. “The drug itself is relatively safe in healthy subjects, but in patients that have heart disease, hypertension, or stroke, or have anxiety problems, they could be at risk because nobody has done long-term studies to show how safe the drug is for these patients.”
Extensive research is need with any new drug. This shows us how it interacts with existing health conditions as well as other medications. Unfortunately, the health conditions that may be incompatible with yohimbine treatment are commonly found in patients who suffer from OSA and other sleep disorders.
No matter which method of treatment you choose, be it CPAP machine or dental appliance, it’s important you seek treatment now rather than waiting for the development of a drug. It’s important to treat sleep apnea as soon as possible after diagnosis. Only treatment prevents other health conditions from developing.