By Wes Annac, Culture of Awareness
One of the most interesting aspects of cannabis use is the effect it has on sleep, and while more research needs to be done in this area, anyone who’s interested in cannabis would probably be interested in what’s been found so far.
As we’ll learn here, cannabis seems to disrupt REM sleep (the sleep stage responsible for dreams), and many longtime users who quit not only have trouble sleeping right, but have vivid dreams when they do finally fall asleep.
Author and psychedelic drug advocate Terence McKenna noted that his dreams were enhanced when he quit using cannabis, and his theory was that it was because cannabis temporarily brings the dream world into our mental/physical awareness. (1)
The fact that cannabis shortens the amount of time we spend in REM sleep and reduces the quality of our dreams proves that there’s a link between it and sleep, and for now, we can only hypothesize on how and why it affects sleep and dreaming.
People are divided over whether marijuana’s connection with sleep is a good thing, and there seem to be good and bad things about it. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the plant helps insomniacs get some rest, and regular users tend to sleep well. One negative aspect, however, is that some users rely on it to sleep properly.
David Wilcock also wrote that his dreams became more vivid when he quit using cannabis (and every other drug), and if cannabis were legal and we could do more studies on its medicinal benefits, we could know for sure whether it helps or hurts sleep.
The countless anecdotal reports of the ways it’s helped people sleep should be enough to convince us that it’s at least a little helpful, and here, we’ll take a look at what’s been uncovered so far.
TruthOnPot.com tells us about the reports of cannabis helping with sleep as well as its disruption of REM sleep.
“Marijuana can have a powerful effect on sleep. Some say cannabis or ‘weed’ helps with falling asleep and many users develop a habit of smoking right before bed.
“Marijuana is probably best known for its ability to induce drowsiness. In other words, it can make you feel sleepy. In addition, people who smoke before bed often report a decrease in the time it takes to fall asleep and an increase in restfulness of the sleep itself.
“A lack of dreams is also commonly reported by nighttime marijuana users, which demonstrates marijuana’s unique effect on the different stages of sleep, specifically REM sleep.” (1)
THC and CBD – two well-known active ingredients in cannabis – mimic the body’s endocannabinoids, which regulate sleep.
“Sleep is one of the more mysterious aspects of human health, and scientists are still unravelling many of the details. However, decades of research on marijuana and sleep have revealed a number of interesting findings.
“What scientists now know is that cannabinoids – the active ingredients in cannabis, such as THC and CBD – actually mimic the effects of natural compounds in the body called endocannabinoids. What’s more, studies show that endocannabinoids act as natural regulators of the sleep/wake cycle.
“As a result, sleep seems to be just another one of the many biological functions controlled – at least in part – by the body’s endocannabinoid system. And by interacting with this biological system, marijuana can affect your sleep in a number of ways.” (2)
So far, we’ve learned that two of marijuana’s active properties mimic the effects of compounds in our body that regulate sleep, which in itself proves a link between cannabis and sleep.
We still aren’t so sure whether this link is positive or negative, but we’ll find our answer by continuing to study it and listening to users who benefit from it as well as former users who can tell us what getting to sleep was like after they quit.
In order to grasp how cannabis can help or hurt our sleep, we have to be aware of the body’s sleep stages. Truth on Pot explains.
“To understand how marijuana affects one’s sleep, it is important to understand how sleep works.
“Sleep is an active, naturally occurring state of the brain. During sleep, the brain cycles through different stages of activity, also known as the stages of sleep.
“The two basic stages of sleep are rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. However, NREM sleep is broken down into stages 1 through 3, while REM sleep is considered stage 4. Dreaming usually occurs during REM sleep.” (3)
Truth on Pot explains the 4 stages in depth.
“Stage 1 – Occurs mostly in the beginning of sleep and lasts between 5 to 10 minutes. A very light stage of sleep in which one can be awakened easily. If aroused, the person will usually believe that they were fully awake.
“Stage 2 – A period of light sleep in which heart rate slows and body temperature drops. Lasts for approximately 20 minutes as the body prepares to enter deep sleep.
“Stage 3 (slow-wave sleep) – Also known as deep sleep, delta sleep or slow-wave sleep. Brain waves are very slow as blood flow is directed away from the brain and towards the muscles, restoring physical energy. Lasts for approximately 30 minutes and one may feel disoriented for a few minutes if aroused.
“Stage 4 (REM sleep) – The longest stage of sleep in which most dreams occur. Characterized by eye-movement and increased breathing and heart rate.
“Heightened brain activity during this stage causes vivid dreaming, but legs and arms are immobilized. The combination of brain wave excitement and muscular paralysis is why REM sleep is sometimes referred to as paradoxical sleep.” (4)
I wonder if anyone who’s experienced sleep paralysis has had its effects lessened by marijuana. Sleep paralysis is a scary and dreadful condition, and while some people report mild experiences, others report being held down by a demon-like entity whom they can see and whose presence they can feel.
You’d think sleep paralysis would be little more than an inability to move at night caused by our sleep stages (the body’s naturally unable to move during REM sleep), but for some people, it’s a nightmare played out over and over again.
If cannabis could help with this awful condition, it could give a lot of people some peace of mind and a good night’s rest.
As Truth on Pot tells us, cannabis can decrease the time it takes to get us to sleep and keep us in stage 3 longer, which is the slow-wave sleep when we get the most rest. The time we spend in REM sleep (stage 4) decreases as a result, which explains the lack of dreams.
“Over the years, many studies have set out to determine the impact that marijuana has on sleep. And the findings seem to explain why many choose to smoke before bedtime. That is, marijuana can act as a sleep aid by decreasing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
“But what happens after you fall asleep? Interestingly, studies show that marijuana can also affect the different stages of sleep; specifically, slow-wave sleep and REM sleep.
“As it turns out, slow-wave sleep and REM sleep are somewhat intertwined. Studies have found that ingestion of THC – the psychoactive compound in marijuana – leads to an increase in slow-wave sleep. An increase in slow-wave sleep leads to a decrease in REM sleep, which explains why marijuana users often experience less dreams.” (5)
The ‘REM rebound effect’, which increases the REM sleep of longtime users who quit, is the reason many who give it up become restless.
“Another interesting finding is the REM rebound effect that is commonly observed when marijuana use is stopped.
“Common characteristics of an REM rebound are restlessness and overly vivid dreaming, which are a result of the brain spending more time in the REM stage than it usually would. An increase in REM sleep has also been linked to depression and symptoms of bipolar disorder.” (6)
While using marijuana at night will disrupt REM sleep, its beneficial effect on the deeper slow-wave sleep makes it a potential insomnia treatment.
“Taking everything into consideration, it would appear that nighttime marijuana use does in fact disrupt one’s sleep. While it is tempting to view this as a negative, research suggests marijuana could offer a few health benefits as well.
“For example, in addition to helping users fall asleep faster, the effect of marijuana on slow-wave sleep may also be viewed as beneficial.
“Experts say that the most damaging effects of sleep deprivation are caused by inadequate slow-wave sleep. For instance, research has shown that reduced slow-wave sleep can be a powerful predictor of high blood pressure in older men. Thus, users who suffer from a lack of overall sleep may actually benefit from using marijuana.” (7)
Its effect on the REM stage makes cannabis a less preferable candidate to help with sleep, even though nobody’s certain how REM sleep helps the brain or body.
“On the flip side, a lack of REM sleep should be viewed as a potential drawback of nighttime marijuana use – although experts are still unsure of what REM sleep actually does for the brain. The fact that brain cells are highly active during REM sleep suggests that it does not play a role in the rest and repair of the brain.
“What’s more, research shows that REM sleep deprivation has little to no impact on learning and memory, with some studies showing that it may even improve memory.
“A lack of REM sleep has also been found to alleviate symptoms of depression. Even still, experts are confident that REM sleep has some sort of positive effect on the body, while it remains to be determined what exactly it may be.” (8)
REM sleep doesn’t seem as important to our wellbeing as slow-wave sleep, but people should still be aware that cannabis can disrupt the REM stage and cautious not to willingly deplete their time in this stage by smoking, vaping, etc. before bed.
According to studies cited by Colorado Pot Guide, cannabis could potentially treat sleep apnea.
“While the lack of dreams may seem like a definite draw-back to some, keep in mind that it is during REM sleep that most sleep disturbances associated with sleep apnea occur.
“Sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by interrupted breathing patterns during sleep, affects millions of Americans resulting [in an] overly sleepy (and thus dangerous) society. A 2002 study, however, suggests that cannabinoids could offer a ‘potent suppression for sleep-related apnea’.
“According to a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, ‘…Δ9-TetraHydroCannabinol (Δ9THC) stabilizes autonomic output during sleep, reduces spontaneous sleep-disordered breathing, and blocks serotonin-induced exacerbation of sleep apnea.’” (9)
When testing a synthetic form of THC, researchers found that it improved sleep conditions for 17 test subjects.
“Building off of this, the researchers went on to find that dronabinol, a man-made form of THC, did, in fact, improve sleeping conditions for 17 adults suffering from obstructive sleep apnea without reducing quality of sleep. Though the study was small, the implications of this are huge.
“Because sleep apnea reduces sleep efficiency, over 22 million Americans who suffer from the disease notoriously work, drive and communicate while sleep deprived.
“This can result in lost productivity at work, increased hazards on the road and a breakdown of interpersonal relationships. If THC (synthetic or not) can help treat the disease, then millions of Americans may finally be able to sleep well again.” (10)
Colorado Pot Guide also mentions the drawback of cannabis as a treatment for sleep apnea or insomnia, which is that once the user quits, they experience the REM rebound effect.
“Many heavy marijuana users report difficulty sleeping once they’ve ceased use. These problems include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep and the phenomenon known as REM rebound or very vivid (often anxiety-inducing) dreams.
“[These] are typical withdraw symptoms (which closely mimic nicotine withdraw) and can last only a few days to as many as six or seven weeks.
“Smoking a bowl at the end of the day is not an uncommon way to relax and ultimately sleep. But regular use of cannabis can affect one’s sleep cycle in a number of ways, both good and bad.” (11)
Cannabis is a potential treatment for those with sleep problems who use it occasionally or have never touched it. However, longtime smokers who need the herb to get to bed might not be using it medicinally, but relying on it for sleep.
They may experience the REM rebound effect if they quit, and I’m not sure if this means cannabis is a great insomnia treatment or it prevents a good night’s rest unless it’s used every night.
In my opinion, sufferers of insomnia, sleep paralysis, sleep apnea or any other sleep condition should do what they feel is best even if others condemn them. If they do use the herb to get to sleep, I’d recommend being honest with themselves about the effects, good and bad, it has on their sleep schedule.
Cannabis affects everyone differently, and while it’s tremendously helpful for some, others probably wouldn’t appreciate the lack of dreams or any other side effect. Whether it helps or hurts sleep, I think we can all agree that it should be legal, more research should be done and more knowledge should be shared about its benefits and drawbacks.
- “Marijuana and Sleep: The Facts” from TruthOnPot.com, November 3, 2012 – http://www.truthonpot.com/2012/11/03/marijuana-and-sleep/
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- “How Cannabis Affects Sleep Patterns” by Abby H., Colorado Pot Guide, March 2, 2015 – https://www.coloradopotguide.com/colorado-marijuana-blog/2015/march/02/how-cannabis-affects-sleep-patterns/
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