The Cannabis Writings: Can Marijuana Help You Sleep? – Part 2/2

The Cannabis Writings PhotoBy Wes Annac, Culture of Awareness

(Continued from part 1)

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.” (1)

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.” (2)

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.” (3)

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.” (4)

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.’” (5)

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.” (6)

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.” (7)

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.

Users 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. Photo credit: leafscience.com

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.

Footnotes:

  1. “Marijuana and Sleep: The Facts” from TruthOnPot.com, November 3, 2012 – http://www.truthonpot.com/2012/11/03/marijuana-and-sleep/
  2. Loc. Cit.
  3. Loc. Cit.
  4. Loc. Cit.
  5. “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/
  6. Loc. Cit.
  7. Loc. Cit.
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