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How Does Cannabis Affect Sleep?

Peaceful, restful, dreamless sleep that sets in naturally - some would argue that there is no better feeling in this life. Unfortunately, for many people, this type of satisfying sleep is a goal that is almost always out of reach, affecting their health and daily lives.

During the night, the body is programmed to hard-wire learned information and memories, rebuild cells, build up the immune system and process waste and toxins out of the brain. It’s all based on a self-regulating system of hormones within our bodies, releasing the perfect recipe for sleep at the right time based on signals from the biological clock. Without the vital downtime that sleep provides, millions of people of all ages walk around in a zombie-like state, more susceptible to cognitive performance issues and chronic illnesses.

Pharmaceutical sleep aid medications, though they have been popular for a long time, do not really treat the root causes of disordered sleep. These drugs can be habit-forming, often linger during the daytime when patients would prefer to feel more alert, and may even cause hallucinations or sleep walking. Perhaps these side effects are part of the reason why many sleep disorder patients have turned to a very different type of treatment - medical cannabis.

The Science of Sleep

Everyone sleeps...at some point. During the night, most of us are healing and relaxing our bodies from the activities of the day, but for many individuals this process is delayed or interrupted. On a daily basis, sleep disruptions can create imbalances in the body’s natural circadian rhythm, making a quality night’s sleep ever more difficult to achieve. Investigating the causes of the disruption is how scientists continue to learn more about the nature of sleep...and our dreams.

Disordered sleep is one of the most prevalent public health issues of the modern era, with an estimate of 50-70 million people in the United States reporting having trouble falling or staying asleep. There is a substantial ripple effect, with tens of thousands of sleepless souls causing auto accidents or work-related accidents each year.

Most of what has been learned about sleep regulation in the past few decades comes back to an essential lock-and-key within the body: the endocannabinoid system. This facet of the mammalian peripheral nervous system is linked to regulation of mood, pain, appetite, and sleep. If the body cannot run this vital system properly on its own, there is only one option: supplementation with medical cannabis and other endocannabinoid-stimulating foods and activities.

Cannabis: The Great Regulator

A 2010 report confirmed hypotheses that endocannabinoid signaling is responsible for almost all “rhythmic” processes of the body, including the circadian rhythm. Thus, it makes sense to supplement with cannabis in order to achieve a significantly more natural and balanced sleep cycle.

The endocannabinoid system is key to regulating the timed release of sleep hormones, along with the rest of the nervous system, of course. In particular, researchers have been intrigued by the novel relationship between CB1 receptors and a fatty acid neurotransmitter called anandamide. Colloquially known as “The Bliss Molecule,” anandamide is a type of endogenous cannabinoid that has been thought to regulate the sleep process since the 1990s.

Many medical cannabis patients are learning to use specific ratios of CBD and THC to treat their symptoms, and may be wondering which cannabinoid is a better match for treating disordered sleep patterns. The answer will almost always be THC. This, the psychoactive component of cannabis, has been shown to activate CB1 receptors, helping open the airways and modulate the sleep process. A minor cannabinoid called CBN has also been shown to play a role in inducing sleep, and usually occurs when cannabis flower is stored for a long time and the THC begins to degrade.

Some frequent cannabis users say that they find themselves dreaming significantly less when they sleep, or, simply not remembering their dreams. There is some scientific truth to this - since 2008 the effects of cannabis and other illicit substances on sleep have been common knowledge in the health community. Specifically, THC has been found to decrease the amount of time spent in “stage 4” or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the least restful stage of sleep when the heart rate is elevated and the brain’s imaging centers are extremely active. This is good news for individuals with PTSD who struggle with nightmares and terrors brought on by traumatic episodes. With cannabis, they can finally get a restful night’s sleep free of uncontrollable distractions.

Strain Sense

Knowing what to look for in a cannabis strain will help you determine the perfect bedtime regimen. Indica-dominant strains that are dark in color and rich in myrcene tend to be the most popular sleep-inducing strains as reviewed by medical cannabis patients on Leafly.

In regard to terpenes, myrcene is not the only one that lends a restful quality to cannabis’ chemical profile. Strains that are high in linalool will have a signature floral aroma, and will produce soothing and relaxing effects similar to those of botanical lavender oil. Linalool is a natural precursor to endogenous production of Vitamin E, which is largely responsible for the production of melatonin, the most important sleep-inducing hormone.

Patients can actually use their senses to sniff out which strains may help them sleep. Spicy, herby, or berry-tinged aromas are evidence of high terpene content. Dark green, bluish or purple leaves, or a name that hints at family names like “Berry,” “Grape,” “Lavender” or “Kush” are other key identifiers for insomnia patients to look for on dispensary shelves.  

Due to its interaction with the CBD1 receptor, high-THC strains are the preferred medical cannabis treatments for sleep disorders. High CBD strains and products can sometimes be effective supplements for bedtime, but the timing is key. Cannabidiol can actually induce a feeling of energy and wakefulness in some patients, so those interested in the calming effects should take CBD early in the day, in order to wind down and eventually sleep soundly.

External Factors

Improving quality and duration of sleep is also achievable through other means besides using cannabis as a supplement, but patients are more likely to succeed in remedying their sleep patterns by combining efforts. Small changes in lifestyle can account for big improvements. Healthy nighttime and wake-up routines, regular diet and exercise, and fine-tuning the bedroom environment to be dark and quiet can all help the body remember to do what it already knows how to do: sleep through the night and wake rested at first light.

Just like combining cannabis with relaxing activities can help promote sleep, combining a lack of sleep with a “workaholic” lifestyle or a habit of heavy partying can be extremely detrimental to overall health. There are many external irritants and environmental factors that can put the endocannabinoid system at an imbalance, adversely affecting the body’s natural sleep cycle. Blue light from computers and mobile devices sends signals to the brain to stay awake. Occasional and especially daily use of drugs like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are proven to throw off the circadian rhythm and the endocannabinoid system.

Final Thoughts

Is cannabis the cure to sleep disorders? Absolutely not. However, it is a low-risk alternative to pharmaceuticals that may pose many additional therapeutic benefits to patients.

Considering all the preventative health benefits that it brings, especially relative to the risks of pharmaceutical sleep aids, isn’t it about time the sleep medicine community started taking medical cannabis seriously?

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