Treating Insomnia with Cannabis


If you can’t go to sleep at night and find yourself counting sheep, scrolling through your phone, or just staring at the ceiling chances are you are not alone. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported that more than one-quarter of the U.S. population admitted to occasionally not getting enough sleep, while almost 10 percent of the population experienced chronic insomnia. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. 


A sleeping disorder is a condition or set of conditions that disrupts one’s normal sleeping patterns. Being deprived of sleep on a regular basis can negatively affect one’s health if not controlled because our bodies need sleep in order to properly function. Symptoms of insomnia range from difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking up too early, and not feeling refreshed despite getting an adequate amount of sleep.


My first experiences with insomnia started eight years ago when I was working full time as a legal assistant while going to graduate school at night. My life consisted of a demanding toddler, a full time job, and a grueling graduate course load. My social life was practically nonexistent because working, taking care of my family, going to school, and studying depleted all of my time and energy. On the nights I did not have class, I started to drink two energy drinks a night just so I could stay up late and study. When I did have class, I added coffee into the rotation to ensure I stayed awake in class and during the two hour drive to and from campus.


After my second quarter of graduate school I started to notice I was having difficulty falling and staying asleep at night. Once I did finally fall asleep I would wake up a couple hours later from some crazy nightmare shivering and sweaty. My night sweats were so out of control that most nights I would have to shower and change my bed linens. Afterwards, I could never go straight back to sleep and I would enviously watch my husband as he effortlessly drifted back into his snore-filled slumber. This cycle continued for the next eight months despite following my doctor’s instructions and taking the prescribed medications. Nothing worked. I was an over-caffeinated, anxious, stressed out, sleep-deprived mess, on the verge of having a mental and physical breakdown. Since the medications my doctor and psychiatrist prescribed were not working I decided to conduct my own personal case study with the one medication I had not intentionally tried: Cannabis. While I am not a doctor or an expert on insomnia I would like to share some of the information both anecdotal and scientific that I have learned over the past eight years.


What causes insomnia?


Insomnia can be due to primary or secondary causes. Primary causes of insomnia is sleeplessness that can not be associated with any identifiable underlying medical, psychiatric, or environmental causes. An example of a primary cause of insomnia could be a temporary job loss or the death of a loved one. In both of these examples, sleeplessness can be directly attributed to adjusting to these recent events and not an underlying medical, psychiatric, or environmental cause. Secondary causes of insomnia is sleeplessness that can be associated with any identifiable underlying medical, psychiatric, or environmental causes. Some examples of secondary causes of insomnia could be chronic pain due to a medical issue like fibromyalgia, or a noisy environment that is keeping you up. In these examples, sleeplessness can be directly linked to an underlying medical (fibromyalgia) and environmental causes (noisy environment). In my case, my insomnia was directly related to adjusting to life as graduate student.


Cannabis & Sleep


A study by Kenneth Cousens and Alberto DiMascio in 1973 found tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to be an effective hypnotic that significantly decreased the amount of time it took an insomniac to fall asleep and decreased their awakenings in the first half of the night. Their study also discovered a side effect known as the “high hangover” that seemed to increase in intensity and duration when THC was administered to patients in the study in dosages over 30 mg. Upon waking some patients felt dehydrated, disorganized, dry-eyed, and lethargic.  The effects of a high hangover can be avoided or reduced by staying well hydrated before and after you consume cannabis and it doesn’t hurt to only consume quality cannabis that is free of pesticides and other harmful substances like mold.


Another study conducted by Katherine Belendiuk and a group of researchers in 2015 found that nearly half of the adults purchasing medical cannabis at a medical cannabis dispensary in California were doing so specifically to help manage their insomnia and/or nightmares. Their study highlighted several discoveries I thought were interesting to point out. First, their data revealed that individuals who consumed cannabis as a method of managing their nightmares actually preferred sativa strains over indica strains. Second, they introduced the term Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD) which is a term used by psychiatrists and mental health professionals for diagnosing purposes. CUD is basically the new medical term for cannabis abuse and cannabis dependency. Their data showed that individuals who preferred primarily indica strains were more likely to have CUD. Last, they discovered insomnia and greater sleep-onset latency can be linked to using higher CBD strains.


Eric Murillo-Rodriguez and a group of researchers conducted several studies in 2006, 2011, and 2014 in which they discovered when cannabidiol (CBD) was administered to male rats with the lights on it actually increased their wakefulness. So if you need a daytime pick me up these studies suggest that non-psychoactive strains may do just that because CBD enhances alertness and suppresses sleep. It may be worth it to switch out your mid-afternoon caffeine break for a CBD break!


In my experience with utilizing cannabis as a nightcap, I discovered that indica dominant strains with a THC percentage of at least 18 to 25 percent are perfect for inducing sleep without the lingering “high hangover” the next morning. My two favorite strains at the moment are Grandaddy Purple and Afgoo. However, there are other things that you can try to get a better night’s sleep.


Many medical and recreational cannabis users consume cannabis as a method of treating their sleep disorders. Multiple studies throughout the years have proven that consuming medical cannabis has improved the quality and quantity of sleep and is in fact a promising treatment for various sleep disorders when used with intention. As the legalization status of cannabis continues to change around the world it would be amazing to have more scientific studies conducted on humans instead of rodents since our endocannabinoid systems and other biological systems are different.


Do you suffer with a sleeping disorder? If so, what tools and/or medications are you using to treat your sleeping disorder? Is cannabis one of those tools? If so, how have your experiences been?


Ashley Asatu Barnes is a healer, truth teller, seed planter, collaborator, and creator of brave spaces. Ashley specializes in cannabis education, cannabis wellness, and cannabis therapy plans in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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