A drug derived from the bark of an African tree might treat the root of the most common form of sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of the disorder, and happens when a person’s airway collapses or becomes blocked — such as by the tongue or even enlarged tonsils — during sleep, interfering with breathing. Although some people can wear a machine that uses pressure to keep air flowing as they sleep, there aren’t any drugs to treat the condition. But a study in JCI Insight suggests help could soon be on the way.

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When rats were given the chemical yohimbine, which comes from the bark of the African yohimbe tree, it stimulated neurons that are linked to tongue control and prevented the tongue from dropping back and blocking the airway. They do not completely understand how the yohimbine treatment worked, however, and are doing more research.

“Before clinical trials are done, it is not advisable for the general public to try this on their own,” senior author Chi-Sang Poon said in a statement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It especially hasn’t been proven safe for people with heart disease and anxiety disorders.

Finding a solid treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is crucial because in addition to making people feel sleepy or fatigued during the day, the study says the condition is a “risk factor for wide-ranging cardiovascular, metabolic, cognitive, and neuropsychiatric abnormalities causing decreased quality of life and life expectancy.”

A continuous positive airway pressure machine, also known as a CPAP machine, gives a person with sleep apnea a constant flow of air and is effective in keeping the airway open, but many do not want to wear it in their sleep.

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“It works very well, but the problem is everybody hates it,” Poon said. “It’s very uncomfortable and inconvenient. Almost half of the people prescribed never use it.”

The proposed usage for sleep apnea is not the only application of yohimbine — according to MIT, it has been used as an aphrodisiac and as a supplement to help bodybuilders burn fat.

Source: Song G and Poon C. α2-Adrenergic blockade rescues hypoglossal motor defense against obstructive sleep apnea. JCI Insight. 2017.

See also:

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