As many as one in four U.S. adults between 30 and 70 suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, a chronic disorder that causes small pauses in your breathing during sleep.

And 90 percent of those cases go undiagnosed, which means being chronically sleep deprived and facing increased risks of accidents and other chronic health problems, like high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and diabetes.

For the ten percent of Americans with sleep apnea who do seek treatment that means using clunky mouthpieces or breathing machines every night when you sleep (so air can flow unobstructed in and out of the throat).

But now a new study has found that a chemical located in the bark of the African Yohimbe tree ― yohimbine ― may be able to actually reverse the cause of the breathing problem. 

The yohimbine stops the tongue from relaxing during sleep, preventing it from falling back and blocking the airway in the throat, study author Chi-Sang Poon told The Huffington Post.

“Yohimbine reactivated the nerve impulses to the tongue,” said Poon, who is a research scientist in Health Sciences and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a dietary supplement, yohimbine has long been used to treat erectile dysfunction, as an aphrodisiac and as a performance enhancer for body builders. These supplements claim to increased energy and speeds up fat loss ― but supplements are not regulated, so these formulations of the chemical are not approved by the FDA for any of these purposes.

This study is the first time that researchers are aware of that the chemical has been used to help to treat sleep apnea, Poon said.

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Currently the mainstay of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is sleeping with a CPAP machine, like this one, that keeps air flowing consistently through the nose and throat during sleep.

The recent experiments were done in rats ― so a drug available for people is still a long way off. (The chemical still needs to be formulated into a drug and then be tested on humans.) But the scientists are excited because if the chemical does have the same effect in people, it may be pivotal in designing the first drug to target the root cause of obstructive sleep apnea.

‘Waking Up’ The Tongue Muscles

In people with sleep apnea specific motor neurons (the nerve cells that control muscle movement) become inactive, which causes the tongue to relax and block breathing.

Previous studies show that yohimbine fires up the cells in the brain that produce norepinephrine, the chemical that stimulates specific nerve responses throughout the rest of the body. Now this study shows that yohimbine has this same effect on the nerve cells that control movement of the tongue ― the hypoglossal nerve cells.

It’s critical to point out that rats do not naturally get sleep apnea. But for this study, researchers were able to simulate a sleep apnea effect in rats by using breathing machines. They sought to confirm which specific nerve cells were involved ― and then show that yohimbine turned those nerve cells back on. The researchers used electrical sensors to measure nerve activity in rats.

They found that when the rats fell asleep the sleep apnea simulation caused the tongue muscle to relax and block airflow (the same thing that happens to people with the condition).

And then when the researchers injected the rats with yohimbine, those nerve cells that are inactive during sleep apnea became active again.

“It’s almost like turning on a switch,” Poon said.

The Next Step 

The next step is more research to figure out if the chemical has the same effect in people as in the rats, Poon explained. And then researchers need to design a drug that delivers the right dose of the chemical to people with sleep apnea ― and that needs to be tested in clinical trial before any such drug was approved by the FDA and available to patients, he said.

The researchers are currently in the process of finding a pharmaceutical company to help develop and test such a drug.

An effective and safe drug for obstructive sleep apnea is on the way.
MIT research scientist, Chi-Sang Poon

Even though yohimbine is currently available in supplement form, the researchers caution it’s not necessarily safe to try using it to treat sleep apnea yet. The wrong dose can cause serious (and dangerous) side effects, like increased blood pressure and heart rate and potentially kidney failure.

The bottom line for people suffering from sleep apnea (and their family and friends affected by the illness): “Be patient. An effective and safe drug for obstructive sleep apnea is on the way,” Poon said.

This reporting is brought to you by HuffPost’s health and science platform, The Scope. Like us on Facebook and Twitter and tell us your story: scopestories@huffingtonpost.com 

Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at sarah.digiulio@huffingtonpost.com. 

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