The Herbal Treatment of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disturbance problems in America. It ruins the sleep of 25 million known Americans with likely millions more undiagnosed sufferers. The condition prevents the sleeper from entering REM and Delta sleep causing them to become anxious, cantankerous and tired during the day. There are some very serious health consequences of prolonged sleep disturbance and deprivation. 

 When diagnosed, the patient is typically told to lose weight, drink less alcohol and quit smoking.  The ineffectiveness of this suggestion should be rather obvious. Beyond that, surgery is offered, though it is painful and has provided only limited success. Dental mouthpieces can be difficult to sleep with, and long-term effects on tooth alignment are questionable. Another common option is CPAP. This forced-air-mask, worn during sleep, does insure proper inhalation. However, experience has shown that 60% of patients are not able to tolerate the mask and ultimately discontinue using the equipment. Additionally, some users develop respiratory infections from the mask. 

 What is presented here is a novel approach that is far less physically intrusive than surgery or a dental appliance and far more comfortable than CPAP. These primitive devices and techniques address the symptoms of the problem and leave the cause unaddressed. The cause, when addressed succinctly, can be mitigated to a point where sleep is not disturbed.

Cause of the Condition

Before we evaluate the “solutions,” let’s consider what is causing the condition. When we begin to fall asleep, we move from stage one (drowsiness) into stage two sleep. Stage two sleep is the transition stage from which we enter REM (rapid eye movement). REM sleep is where we dream. Dreaming is critical to a good night’s sleep. When we enter stage two sleep in preparation for dreaming, muscular activity is inhibited (blocked). This is called “inhibition of muscular tonus.” This function occurs normally and appropriately to keep the dreamer from physically acting out the movements of their dreams.

The first problem is that the inhibition of signals from the brain to the skeletal muscles tends to inadvertently reduce the signal that tells the diaphragm to breathe. In patients with sleep apnea, upon entering stage two sleep, the breathing will actually come to a stop (sleep apnea means cessation of breathing). The muscles of the soft palate in the mouth do also become weaker.  This allows the soft palate to sag. Keep in mind though that this is the same soft palate that you have during the day, and it doesn’t cause you problems while you are awake. It doesn’t just “fall” into the airway.

Upon entering stage two sleep, the muscle tonus holding the soft palate out of the airway is reduced. This allows the soft palate to sag slightly into the airway. While this is happening, the same inhibition of muscle tonus is causing an attenuation of the signals to the diaphragm. The result is that the breathing becomes shallower due to insufficient signal strength to the diaphragmatic muscles. In sleep apnea sufferers, breathing will actually come to a stop.

When breathing ceases, the blood oxygen level drops, and the carbon dioxide levels rise. In a young and healthy individual, this would elicit stronger and deeper breathing from the control system that regulates these activities. In an older individual, the respiration reduction causes a significant imbalance in the blood gases, and with the lack of signal to the diaphragm, the imbalance reaches a critical point. At this point, the safety back-up system comes in. When the blood gas levels are too far imbalanced, the brain intervenes and causes the body to make a large and immediate inhalation. This rapid inhalation causes a large pressure differential in the pharynx and literally sucks the sagging-soft palate into the airway. This obstructs the air flow and causes a loud “SNORT” partially or fully awakening the subject. Most times, the subject is not fully awakened, and thus isn’t aware that this is even happening. Even so, the action disturbs their sleep enough so that they return to stage one sleep. The mental arousal caused by the “alarm point” reaction of the brain will return the sleeper to a lower level of somnolence.

Upon awakening or returning to stage one sleep, the inhibition of muscular tonus for entry into stage two sleep is released, and respiration begins again in a somewhat normal manner. As the subject starts to drift off to sleep again, they move into stage two, the muscle tonus drops, the soft palate sags, the signal to the diaphragm diminish, and the cycle repeats. The resulting snorting awakenings typically occur approximately every 1 to 5 minutes. 

This repetitive cycle serves to block the sleeper from entering REM and, in some cases, can inhibit transition into Delta and Theta sleep as well. It is this disturbance of sleep that causes the health consequences of sleep apnea. 

The Solution

 If the breathing was sufficiently deep enough, then a rapid inhalation would not be demanded by the brain, and the soft palate would NOT be sucked into the airway. There would be no resulting snort that arouses the sleeper. The appropriate solution is to accentuate (increase) the ability of the brain to communicate with the diaphragm so that steady breathing is maintained throughout the night.

 Sure, it is beneficial to strengthen the muscles of the soft palate. Yes, it is advantageous to reduce muscular tension in the neck since the nerves from C3, C4 and C5 travel through this area and ultimately become the phrenic nerve that services the diaphragm. Both of these things will make a noticeable improvement in the condition. In fact, some foods like wheat products and cheese should not be eaten near bedtime as they can cause congestion which aggravates the condition. However, the most dramatic impact can be made by the administration of just a few common herbs.

Remembering that the root cause of this cascade of events is caused by a diminution of the signal from the brain to the diaphragm, we turn to Lobelia. Lobelia, when used in small doses, acts as a respiratory stimulant. It has been used for thousands of years to treat respiratory conditions. This herb, when taken before bed, can actually increase the quiescent level of respiration sufficiently so as to avert the dangerous drop in blood oxygen level that occurs upon muscular inhibition. Lobelia can maintain deep steady breathing throughout the stage two sleep transition period. This keeps the brain from calling for a rapid inhalation that would suck in the soft palate and arouse the sleeper. 

Thyme has traditionally been used to enhance pleural activity. It actually improves the ability of the lungs to exchange CO² for oxygen and makes an excellent contribution to maintaining sufficient respiratory amplitude.  

To round out the combination, Chamomile aids the subject in relaxing, and Cramp Bark helps the upper trapezius muscles to relax. It is beneficial to relax the upper trapezius muscles as they tend to tighten up during the day in a “stress response.” The nerves that emanate from C3, C4 and C5 transition through this muscular region in the brachial plexus to form the phrenic nerve.  It is best to have sound nervous transmission as it is this nerve that services the diaphragm.

This combination of herbs taken before bed has been demonstrated to relieve sleep apnea in most cases. It is interesting to note that when a sleep apnea sufferer who has not been treated tries this combination, the relief is felt on the first night. There is no preconditioning required for the herbs to increase the respiratory level, relaxation of skeletal muscles and gas exchange efficiency.  

What happens next is rather interesting. The body realizes that it can now access REM sleep.  The deprivation of REM caused by the preexisting apnea condition has built up a deficiency, and the subject will experience an effect known as a “REM rebound.” This “overdreaming” can actually cause the subject to feel less rested than normal. The body will reestablish a normal sleep pattern within a couple of weeks, and the overall results will be far superior restfulness. This REM rebound is not seen in patients who transition from CPAP to the herbal solution since they have not been REM deprived.


Published with permission from Mr. Steven R. Frank. The author’s opinions are their own, and DC Aligned does not take responsibility for content statements and opinions. You should seek expert counsel in evaluating opinions, treatments, products and services. For more information, see our Editorial Policies.

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