Medical cannabis has been proven to be one of the safest and most effective sleep aids with few adverse side effects. This article will examine how medical cannabis affects the different sleep stages. It helps patients fall asleep faster and it extends the recuperative period of sleep. The effect medical cannabis has on sleep patterns has been shown to improve the symptoms of sleep apnea and PTSD and may retard the development of neurological diseases.
How Cannabis Affects The Different Stages of Sleep
The first stage describes the period during which one falls asleep. On average, this should take about 7 minutes. If you are under stress or in pain, sleep can be elusive for much longer. Since cannabis is known to reduce pain and relieve stress and anxiety, its sedative effects kick in almost immediately, except for edibles which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
The second stage is a period of light sleep, where the sleeper wakes easily. This is also the stage least affected by cannabis.
The third and fourth stages are grouped together, known as slow wave sleep (SWS). This is the most recuperative stage and cannabis usage extends its length.
Research suggests that the lengthening of this period of sleep may reduce the production of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. Beta-amyloid starts as a single molecule that tends to form into clusters of plaque that move around in the brain. This plaque build-up contributes to Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. More human clinical trials are required to prove this hypothesis.
The fifth and final stage is known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep where dreams take place. Cannabis usage reduces the amount of time we spend in REM sleep, so we dream less.
One theory about why this happens is that cannabis usage dulls the dopamine response. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that controls our feelings of pleasure, motivation and reward. It also plays an integral part in dream creation during sleep as well as allowing us to remember them. This theory is supported by the fact that when heavy cannabis users take a break, their dreams return with great intensity as a renewed sensitivity to dopamine occurs.
The purpose for REM sleep is also up for debate. Here are the theories:
- REM sleep facilitates body temperature and neurotransmitter level regulation
- REM sleep regulates memory retention
- Dreams distract our brain while our endocannabinoid system is ridding itself of toxins
Whatever the reason, it is important to note that high-THC cannabis usage does disturb our natural sleep cycle by reducing REM sleep. However, in the case of sleep apnea and PTSD, the reduction of REM sleep may have a positive effect by reducing the symptoms of these conditions.
How Cannabis May Help Treat Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. This causes the sufferer to wake many times during the night. It leads to sleep deprivation which translates into daytime sleepiness, fatigue, headaches, loss of focus and irritability. Prolonged periods of sleep apnea may lead to serious medical conditions which include:
- High Blood Pressure
- Heart Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Liver Problems
- Unhappy Partners
There are 3 different types of sleep apnea. Here is a link to more information about the disorder.
A 2013 study, conducted by the Departments of Medicine and Biobehavioral Science at University of Illinois, Chicago, was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. Despite using synthetic THC, Dronabinol, the results showed a reduction in sleep-disordered breathing in the 15 out of 17 participants with obstructive sleep apnea. The treatment lasted for 21 days.
The implications of the effectiveness of THC in controlling sleep apnea is enormous. More than 22 million Americans suffer with sleep apnea which directly leads to sleep deprivation. This affects their work productivity, road safety, and their professional and personal relationships. More research with human clinical trials and natural THC is needed. This has the potential to be groundbreaking in reducing sleep deprivation.
Cannabis Withdrawal May Lead to Sleep Problems
It is important to note that heavy cannabis users often report sleep problems when they have stopped regular usage. These include:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- REM sleep rebound where they experience extremely vivid, potentially disturbing dreams
- Sleep disturbance may last anywhere from a few days to 6-7 weeks
How THC and CBD Strains Affect Sleep
Most sleep studies use high-THC strains which consistently show results that the psychotropic cannabinoid promotes relaxation/sedation and better sleep.
A 2006 animal study conducted in Mexico concluded that high-CBD strains have the opposite effect to high-THC strains. They increase alertness during the day and may be a great remedy for those with excessive sleepiness during the day.
Older Cannabis Is More Sedating
Who would have thought that your aged, dried cannabis flower is better for sleep than your fresh specimen? It turns out that THC degrades over time and converts into Cannabinol (CBN) which is 5 times more sedating than THC. It does take quite a while for this to happen with only a small amount of the THC converting to CBN, so don’t allow all your flower to dry out!
Cannabis Usage Early in Life May Cause Sleep Problems
A 2014 study conducted at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, published in the journal Sleep,concluded that those who used cannabis as teenagers may experience impaired sleep quality later in life.
The study data was based on self-reporting by 1,800 participants, ages 20-59 years, with a history of drug use. Those who started using cannabis before age 15 were twice as likely to have severe problems falling asleep, did not feel refreshed after a night’s sleep and were excessively sleepy during the day. More research would be required to establish causality between early cannabis usage and sleep disorders.
Finding Your Sleep Strains
THC and CBD are not the only cannabinoids to consider when looking for a sleep strain. Remember that terpenes also play a large role in determining the effects and the benefits of cannabis strains. Trial and error is always part of the process of finding the most beneficial strains for your personal needs.
Source: coloradopotguide.com, How Cannabis Affects Sleep Patterns, Abby Hutmacher, March 2, 2015
Leafly.com, Cannabis and Sleep: 10 Things to Know About Your Herbal Nightcap, Bailey Rahn, March 9, 2016
Pennmedicine.org, Penn Medicine Study Finds Marijuana Use May Impair Sleep Quality, Penn Medicine News, June 2, 2014
Mayoclinic.org, Sleep Apnea