5 Things We Know About Cannabis and Insomnia

The clock on the nightstand couldn’t care less that you’re tossing and turning – it just wants you to know that it’s 3 a.m., and you’ve been awake for hours.


Everyone experiences sleepless nights here and there, but for some, chronic insomnia is a way of life – in fact, the American Sleep Association reports that one out of every three people in the United States suffers from insomnia, and one in 10 considers the problem to be chronic. But aside from the common claims that cannabis makes many of its users sleepy, what else do we know about how its use affects our sleep overall?


Quite a bit, it turns out. For instance, indica is the preferred strain for sleep – not enough data is available to indicate the exact mechanism, but terpenes have long been suspected as the cause — as sativa usually has a more stimulating effect. And where alcohol has a tendency to disrupt sleep cycles and result in more awake hours and reduced REM (rapid-eye movement) time, preliminary studies on cannabis and sleep have shown that evening use of THC was “significantly associated with shorter sleep latency, less difficulty falling asleep, and more daytime sleep the following day,” according to a study published in the American Journal on Addictions.


It’s also worth mentioning that a slight “hangover effect” has been reported, resulting in a groggy next morning for some users. But as with other purported effects of cannabis, further study is needed.


Cannabis does have a sleep-inducing effect for some people

Early research has shown that cannabis users experience “shorter sleep latency, less difficulty falling asleep and more daytime sleep the following day” – essentially, that cannabis helps people fall asleep faster and more easily, and that it can increase the amount of sleep.


Reporting in O’Shaughnessy’s, the clinical practice cannabis journal, study authors Rolando Tringale, MD, and Claudia Jensen, MD, concluded that “the results seem to support the growing body of research that has demonstrated a sleep-inducing effect of cannabis. Both those with sleep difficulties and those without reported a significant decrease in time to sleep after the use of cannabis. This suggests cannabis may be an effective treatment for insomnia.” It’s worth noting that this was “the largest retrospective study on the clinical effect on sleep through patient-reported data.”


Moreover, cannabis appears to help with the insomnia associated with several medical issues. In its recent review of several sleep-related cannabis studies, the ad hoc committee commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a study showing that “there is moderate evidence that cannabinoids, primarily nabiximols, are an effective treatment to improve short-term sleep outcomes in individuals with sleep disturbance associated with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis.”


Consuming cannabis alters dream states for many users

A 2008 study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews found that both smoking marijuana and ingesting THC orally reduces REM sleep, one of the five phases people experience while asleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, “REM sleep stimulates regions of the brain that are used for learning,” and makes up 25 percent of the sleep cycle, repeating in cycles throughout the night.


Since this is the time when we dream and when the regions of our brains that are used for learning are stimulated – a process that is still not fully understood – there are concerns that suppressing REM sleep through cannabis use may result in things like memory loss and migraines. In addition, THC consumption is associated with changes in slow-wave, or deep, sleep, which is considered to be critical for learning and memory consolidation.


It turns out that quitting cannabis can have an effect, as well; study authors concluded that “difficulty sleeping and strange dreams are among the most consistently reported symptoms of acute and subacute cannabis withdrawal.”


THC and CBD affect sleep differently

It turns out that two compounds in cannabis – the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) – affect sleep patterns in very different ways, and it can depend on the dosage and if they’re ingested in combination. In a 2006 study, for example, researchers found that rats experienced varying reactions as they slept, including less REM sleep when high amounts of CBD were involved and more restless sleep in the presence of THC.


More research is needed, but initial data seems to indicate that the dosage can have a significant impact. For instance, some users have reported mixed microdosing results: Sometimes it energizes instead of knocking you out. Meanwhile, there are strong indications that higher doses of CBD (10-40 mg) “tend to promote additional sleep.”


A variety of terpenoids also can amplify the effects of cannabis on sleep, so bring on the chamomile tea with your nightly herb.


The older the cannabis, the better the sleep

When THC degrades, it turns into CBN, but it takes a while for this to happen – sometimes up to three years. But this can be an effective way to increase the compound from 3-5 percent, which can substantially improve how quickly you fall asleep and how deeply.


“Not only is it [CBN] sedative, it takes very little to do the job. The consumption of 2.5 mg to 5 mg of CBN has the same level of sedation as a mild pharmaceutical sedative, with a relaxed body sensation similar to 5 mg to 10 mg of diazepam,” according to Steep Hill, a cannabis lab and research center.


Quitting cannabis use may hurt your sleep habits

For heavy users who quit smoking or ingesting cannabis, insomnia may return with a vengeance, reports Deidre Conroy, a clinical associate professor in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry.


In a story she recently wrote for The Conversation, Conroy shared the results of her recent survey on the effects of cannabis on sleep. Her findings indicate that heavy users – defined as daily – often relapse because of sleep issues, with as many as 65 percent of heavy users returning to daily cannabis use to get some sleep. In addition, she revealed that “the effects of cannabis on sleep may depend on many factors, including individual differences, cannabis concentrations and frequency of use.”


“However,” Conroy writes, “once nightly cannabis use stops, sleep clearly worsens across the withdrawal period.”


Author: Kyle Wagner

Kyle WagnerFreelance writer Kyle Wagner has been a journalist for 30 years; most recently, she was restaurant critic and travel editor at The Denver Post until 2014, and has written for The Cannabist and other cannabis-oriented publications since. In 2017, Kyle left Colorado for Sherwood, Ore., to co-found the hemp farm Queen Bee Bliss. In the off-season, the mother of two adult daughters adds to her list of 40+ countries visited, and is an enthusiastic mountain biker and river rat.

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