With the daily stress of life in today’s fast-paced modern societies, it’s no surprise that around 45% of the world’s population struggles with some type of sleep disorder.
A few cocktails as a nightcap may help some people fall asleep, but the metabolizing sugar usually wakes them up in the middle of the night. Pharmaceutical sleep aids can be effective, but many have dangerous side-effects or can even cause a fatal overdose.
Can cannabis offer a less risky way to help restore the body’s natural sleep cycles, or does weed make matters worse? Let’s find out.
Sleep Cycles and the Endocannabinoid System
Cannabis creates its effects by interacting with receptors in our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS acts as a master regulator, helping to balance the workings of many vital functions, such as:
- Body Temperature
- Pain response
…and, you guessed it—sleep cycles. In fact, insomnia remains among the primary reasons many people consume cannabis.
A clinical study conducted in 2014 concluded that cannabis use reduced the time needed for the 147 research subjects to fall asleep. In 2018, research involving 409 patients with sleep difficulties found a “statistically and clinically significant improvement in perceived insomnia levels.”
Cannabis may also improve sleep by reducing pain. Several cannabinoids have shown potent anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. A clinical study of patients with neuropathic pain found that they experienced improved sleep after taking the cannabis-based prescription drug Sativex.
Each cannabinoid has a distinct way of interacting with the endocannabinoid receptors. Some cannabinoids may influence sleep cycles more than others. Let’s take a look at how a few of the major compounds in cannabis affect sleep patterns.
How THC Affects Sleep
Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the cannabinoid responsible for most of the psychoactive effects of cannabis. THC has known sedative properties. One THC study involving daily cannabis smokers found that participants had less difficulty falling asleep than a control group. THC may also improve rest by promoting better breathing, which could help with sleep apnea, a respiratory condition that causes patients to awaken frequently during the night.
Several studies have observed that THC reduces the amount of REM sleep, a stage characterized by rapid eye movement and the experience of dreaming. A shorter REM cycle may mean more time for deep restorative sleep stages, and less REM may also help people with PTSD have reduced insomnia and fewer nightmares.
The Downside: Our bodies need adequate REM sleep to regenerate fully. The REM cycle is particularly critical for our immune function. Additionally, people who don’t get enough REM sleep may have an increased risk of obesity, memory issues, and mood disorders.
Can CBD Help You Sleep Better?
If you were to believe the advertising, you would think that CBD is a panacea for many conditions, including insomnia. But what does the research say?
Preliminary studies have found that CBD can be beneficial for people who are having trouble sleeping because of anxiety issues. In a case study published in The Permanente Journal, researchers administered CBD to 72 participants struggling with anxiety and sleep difficulties. After just one month, the results showed a 79.2% dip in anxiety scores, and 48 patients reported improved sleep patterns.
The Downside: According to a 2017 research review, CBD may act as a stimulant in higher doses.
Other Cannabis Compounds that May Affect Sleep
Cannabinol (CBN) is a mildly psychoactive compound that many experts call the “sleep cannabinoid.” CBN is produced as THC metabolizes, which is the main reason why older or poorly-stored cannabis seems to cause drowsiness. Research involving mice found that CBN may also prolong the duration of sleep.
Terpenes are aromatic compounds that plants produce to attract pollinators and repel pests. Several terpenes in cannabis flower and full-spectrum products may help with sleep, including:
- Myrcene: Often considered the “couch-lock terpene,” myrcene is renowned for its profound pain-relieving and sedative properties. Chronic pain is one of the most common reasons why people have problems sleeping well. Myrcene is one of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis, but indica-dominant strains typically contain higher myrcene levels.
- Linalool: Spas around the world use lavender oils and incense to take advantage of linalool’s calming nature. Cannabis hybrids like Amnesia Haze and Lavender Kush feature abundant linalool terpenes.
- Alpha-bisabolol: Widely regarded for their relaxing properties, chamomile flowers contain ample quantities of alpha-bisabolol. You can also find high levels of alpha-bisabolol in cannabis strains such as Trainwreck or Master Kush.
The Downside: You can get the same terpenes from many plants. After considering practical and legal concerns, you may find it easier to use other herbs, teas, or essential oils containing calming terpenes, such as chamomile or lavender.
Frequent, Heavy Cannabis Use and Sleep
Frequently consuming large quantities of cannabis may not be the best way to deal with insomnia. In a 2016 study of 98 young adults, researchers found that daily cannabis consumption actually caused sleep disturbances. Plus, heavy cannabis use at night can make consumers feel groggy the next day. The cannabis “hangover” applies especially to edibles since their effects can last eight hours or more.
Furthermore, long-term use of any kind of sleep aid may lead to psychological or physical dependency. Regularly consuming high levels of cannabis causes people to build a tolerance, and they’ll require more cannabis to get the same effects. Anecdotal and clinical evidence suggests that sleep disruptions worsen immediately after heavy users stop consuming cannabis. A peer-reviewed article published in the scientific journal Sleep Medicine found that heavy cannabis consumers who were trying to abstain showed marked decreases in the ability to fall asleep and their total sleep time. The same subjects experienced an increase in interrupted sleep and involuntary limb movements during slumber.
A 2019 study conducted by the University of Haifa in Israel found that while occasional cannabis consumption seemed to improve sleep, frequent use was associated with difficulty falling asleep and more instances of awakening throughout the night.
The Good News: Sleep cycles seem to return to normal levels after a tolerance break. However, there’s usually a period of REM rebound before the dreaming cycle resets. Recently abstinent heavy cannabis consumers may experience prolonged periods of dreaming and more vivid, even bizarre dreams until the REM cycle regularizes.
Conclusions: Should You Use Cannabis as a Sleep Aid?
The scientific community still has a long road ahead to fully understand how cannabis affects sleep cycles, and much of the research to date has been somewhat contradictory. However, we can safely conclude that occasionally consuming cannabis for sleep could be helpful, but daily reliance on the weed seems to be counterproductive.
Regular, heavy cannabis use may create even more problems with sleep patterns. A better long-term solution would be to consult your physician to investigate the underlying causes of your sleep issues.
How does cannabis affect your sleep? Let us know in the comments below.