Is a Dietary Supplement for Sleep Apnea in the Works?

A close up of red liquid-gel capsules spilled across a counter.

An exciting new dietary supplement for sleep apnea shows promise during research trials for treating sleeping disorders. However, we are yet to understand how the medication works on those with long-term effects of the illness. Jeffrey W. Cross, D.D.S., F.A.G.D, is an advocate for treating sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, commonly known as OSA, which affects millions of people around the world. He and his team are always one step ahead of the competition in terms of technology and treatment advancements for sleeping problems.

Investigating a Sleep Apnea Dietary Supplement

There are a number of treatment choices for obstructive sleep apnea. Patients may use everything from CPAP machines to dental devices to keep their airways open. These tools work by preventing airway collapse or obstruction, which causes recurring periods of breathing cessation throughout the night. Breathing pauses can cause a variety of long- and short-term health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even death if they are not treated. There are also a number of short-term problems, such as daytime drowsiness, concentration difficulties, and memory problems. OSA is a condition that affects an estimated 30 million Americans, and it increases the risk of automobile accidents, work-related injuries, and other health problems linked to a lack of sleep and lowered nighttime oxygen levels.

OSA has been the subject of much study and research in recent years. We continue to figure out how horrible this sleeping problem is. Fortunately, this research has also given us additional treatment choices for those who don’t respond well to CPAP machines. Despite all of the medical breakthroughs and advancements in treatment choices, there is currently no drug therapy for sleep apnea. Researchers at MIT may be able to alter that.

A chemical produced from the African Yohimbe tree’s bark has the potential to be a new sleep apnea treatment. When yohimbine was tested in animals, researchers discovered that it reversed OSA’s cause. This supplement isn’t new; instead, it has been used by humans for a variety of purposes including as an aphrodisiac and a fat-burner.

The research on yohimbine is still in preliminary stages, and it has not yet been tested on humans. However, this new sleep apnea dietary supplement shows promise. The FDA has not yet authorized yohimbine for the treatment of sleep apnea.

The Risks of Taking a Dietary Supplement for Sleep Apnea

Before a new medicine or supplement can be approved, it must pass extensive clinical testing. During this time, we frequently discover any potential problems for those who have certain medical issues. MIT reports:

While the obstructive sleep apnea findings are promising, individuals should not start taking the drug on their own, especially those who also have heart disease, high blood pressure, or anxiety issues, according to Chi-Sang Poon, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES).

“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.”

Despite its efficacy, most OSA patients despise the CPAP machine. As a result, alternative therapy choices such as customized dental appliances have increased. The CPAP device is generally seen to be inconvenient and unpleasant. The rate of compliance is extremely low. Only one in four patients use it consistently, while the other half stop doing so after six months. Only about half of patients utilize it on a regular basis, and a significant number cease usage within the first six months. The dissatisfaction with CPAP therapy has prompted researchers to explore drug therapy as an option for OSA.

Examining Drug Treatments of OSA

Researchers have looked at potential drug targets to help prevent or minimize OSA episodes. This piqued the interest of researchers, who set out to find the hypoglossal nerve. Researchers hoped that stimulating this nerve would aid in keeping airways open, but no medications tested for this purpose were effective.

The MIT research team took this concept a step further. Other research has shown that certain sets of neurons in the brain stem control the hypoglossal nerve. The activity of these neurons tapers dramatically during sleep, especially during the REM stage, 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 test yohimbine, which is supposed to act on the norepinephrine receptors on these cells and limit their excitation of hypoglossal neurons.

The idea of targeting these receptors during sleep was “outlandish,” according to Poon, because the cells’ activity is already reduced during slumber, and blocking these receptors would be like beating a dead horse.

Poon took a chance and observed what would happen. Surprisingly, in rats treated with yohimbine, the neurons were stimulated and their function against OSA was restored.

“It worked wonders,” Poon says. “Everything seemed to get back to normal again.”

Next Steps

Researchers must now collaborate with pharmaceutical firms in order to develop a sleep apnea dietary supplement and test it on humans. They must also assess the appropriate and effective dosage levels, which are yet unknown. This is why it’s critical that you don’t use this pill to treat your OSA on your own. While the medication is quite safe in healthy individuals, those with other health issues 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, 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.”

Any new drug must first be thoroughly investigated. This tells us how it interacts with current health problems as well as other medications. Unfortunately, the health issues that may put yohimbine therapy in jeopardy are frequently encountered in persons who have OSA and other sleep disorders.

It stands to reason that, despite advances, we are still some time out from developing a drug treatment for OSA.

No matter which treatment method you select, be it a CPAP machine or custom dental appliances, it’s vital you seek out diagnosis and treatment sooner than later. Don’t wait for the development of the drug. Untreated sleep apnea is extremely dangerous to your health and it should be treated as early as possible. Only treatment can prevent associated health conditions from worsening.

Call Jeffrey W. Cross, D.D.S., F.A.G.D, at (301) 662-0300 for more information on dental appliances and the future of a dietary supplement for sleep apnea.


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