A natural aphrodisiac thought to help with erectile dysfunction and weight loss could now get a third use: sleep apnea cure. Researchers found that yohimbe, a dietary supplement derived from tree bark, could provide a more comfortable alternative to the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that while effective, is also inconvenient and annoying for sleep apnea sufferers.

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“It works very well, but the problem is everybody hates it,” says Chi-Sang Poon, a research scientist at MIT in a story on the school’s website. “It’s very uncomfortable and inconvenient. Almost half of the people prescribed never use it.”

Sleep apnea occurs when the tongue or other tissues shift and block the airway, according to the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers have been working on drugs to stimulate the hypoglossal nerve, which controls the tongue, but so far attempts have been unsuccessful.

Instead, the MIT researchers targeted two neurons they believed dropped in activity during sleep. So, they used yohimbine — another name for the active chemical in the yohimbe tree's bark — to reactivate the neuron groups. Though researchers are not entirely sure how it worked, they found the supplement targeted the neurons, which stimulated the hypoglossal neurons and helped with sleep apnea. The experiment was conducted in rats, so it is still a ways from becoming a mainstream treatment.

Yohimbe is used by bodybuilders to burn fat and has long been used as an aphrodisiac to help with erectile dysfunction and low sex drive, however it is not FDA approved for any of these uses.

Poon warns sleep apnea patients from taking matters into their own hands and trying out the treatment at home.

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“Yohimbine is a centuries-old drug that people have been using for other reasons,” he 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.”

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