Maybe it was your bong-loving college roommate or a buddy who recently moved out to Colorado and got into edibles. Or perhaps you heard it from a friend who heard it from their glaucoma-afflicted grandmother. Either way, it’s probably been passed along that smoking a little pot before bed might help you fall asleep.
And that might be true. But some say the long-held belief in marijuana’s power as a sleep aid is more myth than reality. Only a handful of studies have actually supported ganja’s effectiveness in inducing sleep, and some doctors even say that it doesn’t help at all.
There’s reason to believe, however, that pot’s effect on sleep will become less mysterious in the near future, as scientists are learning more and more about the natural chemicals in marijuana that trigger activity in the brain’s endocannabinoid system, which plays a role in regulating our sleep-wake cycles. How they do this isn’t yet clearly understood. But here’s hoping more clarity comes soon. Until then, here’s here’s what science has so suggested about how cannabis affects sleep.
Marijuana may reduce nightmares
In a small study published in the November 2015 issue of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore asked 163 adults who bought pot at a marijuana dispensary for mental or physical condition to self-report whether the drug helped them sleep. Of the 81 people who said they used marijuana for sleep-centric purposes, 14 said they used it to successfully reduce the appearance of nightmares.
Their reflections make sense when you consider that previous research has supported marijuana’s ability in reducing the amount of time spent in REM sleep, the stage where most dreaming occurs. The authors of the study, however, concluded that more controlled studies of the types of strains best for particular sleep problems are needed.
Still, this falls in line with similar research done in the Parkinson’s field. Patients experience significant reductions in the terrifying effects of REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), which can cause nightmares and violent limb movements during sleep, when given cannabidol (CBD) the most prevalent active cannabinoid in the cannabis plant.
A specific component of cannabis could induce sleep
In the previously mentioned Addictive Behaviors study, the 81 subjects that admitted to buying marijuana to help address their insomnia reported a strong preference for strains high in cannabidiol rather than THC, the component of marijuana that provides the telltale high.
[pullquote]The people who’d been given 160 mg doses of CBD reported significantly more sleep than volunteers given a placebo.[pullquote]
Research published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 1981 similarly supported the efficacy of CBD for wooing sleep. In clinical trials spanning nearly a decade, researchers looked at the strain’s effects on healthy volunteers and those suffering from insomnia as well as epilepsy and found that the people who’d been given 160 mg doses of CBD reported significantly more sleep than volunteers given a placebo. Subjects given CBD also reported less dream recall and drowsiness, however.
Although CBD is the component of marijuana most often given credit for pain relief and sleep aid, one of the oldest and best known studies of the effects of marijuana on insomnia actually touted THC as the effective ingredient. That 1976 report published in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics it was concluded that THC had similar sleep effects to lithium, a drug prescribed for bipolar disorder and depression.
It decreases the amount of deep, restful sleep
In a comparison of the effects of illicit drugs on sleep published in Sleep Medicine Reviews in 2008, researchers concluded that when users smoked marijuana or ingested THC, they spent less time in REM sleep stages and more time in stage 4 sleep, the meaty, reparative stage in which we’re less likely to dream and more difficult to wake.
Looking for the ideal strain? The results of a 2014 online survey published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine supported the commonly held notion that indica, which provides a heavy body high, as the type that best addresses sleep problems. (In particular, experts recommend the indica strain “Godfather OG” as helpful for inducing sleep.)
If you start smoking pot at a young age, you may very well suffer insomnia later.
University of Pennsylvania researchers concluded that people who started smoking pot early in their lives were more likely to have insomnia as adults, although researchers cautioned that the results reflect a correlation but aren’t definitive enough to determine that marijuana use was to blame. People could be smoking pot because they suffer from insomnia, for example, they pointed out.
Most surprising, however, was that, in terms of later sleep problems, the amount of marijuana smoked mattered less than the age at which people began using it.
Sleep problems commence when heavy smokers quit.
According to Dr. Igor Grant, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego and director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research and one of many doctors against pot as a sleep aid, heavy pot users who suddenly quit are likely to encounter sleep and anxiety troubles.
For example, University of Baltimore researchers looked at 17 men and women who were heavy marijuana users to determine the effects of abstinence on their sleep patterns. The results, published in Sleep in 2008, concluded that the former users slept less overall, spent less time in slow-wave sleep, had shorter REM periods and generally less efficient sleep than the control group. Although their results were preliminary, researchers wrote, their findings suggest that the sleep disturbances relating to heavy marijuana cessation could make it more difficult for people to quit.
Research on the effects of marijuana withdrawal is fairly scant but is a growing area of concern, as some of the effects, including those detrimental to restorative sleep, can be as unpleasant as the side effects of coming off other drugs.
Marijuana might reduce the effects of sleep apnea.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago concluded that dronabinol, a synthetic compound that contains THC and is prescribed to treat nausea and increase appetite in cancer and AIDs patients, can reduce sleep-disordered breathing in sufferers of obstructive sleep apnea.They published their results in the Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2013.
Why the correlation? The authors suspect the effect is due to a relationship between the endocannabinoid system and cardio-respiratory functions. They also noted that drowsiness was a common side effect. Researchers were quick to point out, however, that they only studied short-term use of dronabinol for this purpose and called for further research.
Some synthetic cannabinoids seem to aid sleep
A 2010 study of the synthetic cannabinoid nabilone, prescribed to control nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, was found to help people with fibromyalgia sleep better, with only mild side effects such as dry mouth and dizziness. Nabilone can be habit-forming, however, so it might not be a great long-term option.