Pot is the perfect nightcap. Stoners have touted the relaxing, chilled-out vibes of weed highs for decades. Anecdotes from smokers also tell tales of weed helping them overcome insomnia, lulling them into a gentle slumber. But what about the science behind these claims? How does marijuana affect sleep, and what benefits may it have?
Today, nearly half of the population suffers from symptoms of insomnia. The issue – caused by several psychological or physical disorders – leads to sleepless nights and long, exhausting days. Insomnia is classified by how long it lasts. The two main symptoms of insomnia include trouble falling asleep and difficulty staying asleep. Sleep issues usually go hand-in-hand with secondary symptoms like low energy, mood disorders, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, decreased performance at work.
Shorter bouts of insomnia (called “acute insomnia”) are typically less serious and may involve stress from life events. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, isn’t a fun name for when dank weed keeps you up at night. Instead, it’s a serious disorder that causes sleep difficulty at least three nights every week over a long span of time.
Chronic insomnia can have several causes, from clinical disorders to prescription side effects. Current treatment for insomnia includes psychological or medical constituents, or both. Often, prescription drugs are seen as a solution to chronic insomnia.
Cannabis and Sleep
As weed has gradually become more accepted in the 2000s, research surrounding cannabinoids and their effects on the body have steadily increased. Some of these studies seem to show that marijuana could have a promising future as a sleep aid – proving what stoners have known all along.
One recent cannabis sleep study comes from the University of New Mexico. In the study, which ran for two years between 2016 and 2018, researchers tracked more than 1000 participants to deduce whether raw cannabis flower would alleviate self-perceived symptoms of insomnia. They designed an app to help participants track their sleep cycles through the entire process. Researchers measured insomnia levels before cannabis consumption and after, and took notes on any side effects they found.
Researchers kept track of countless variables throughout the study. For example, they kept track of how users smoked: half vaped, almost 40 percent smoked from a pipe, and just over 10 percent chose joints. They also noted that joint smokers seemed to report the lowest sleep-related benefits from weed. This suggests that if someone using weed for insomnia should avoid joints at night.
They also tracked data on 471 strains that participants used and recorded their THC and CBD concentrations. More than half of participants smoked indicas, a third smoked hybrids, and the remaining five percent or so smoked sativas. According to their research, Granddaddy Purple, Northern Lights, OG Kush, and Blue Dream were particularly effective.
It’s interesting to note that strains with the highest THC concentration showed little change in sleep patterns. Strains with huge THC concentrations are often sativas, and with their stimulating and euphoric highs, these strains aren’t particularly adept at helping smokers fall asleep. As a result, the study determined there was something other than THC concentration that determined a strain’s effectiveness at promoting sleep. From that hunch, researchers drew the conclusion that CBD is the cannabinoid with the most influence on sleep.
Cannabinoids are Key – and So Are Terpenes
Although conventional wisdom considers indicas and sativas to have different effects, it’s not the plant’s genetics that determine how they influence a user’s body. However, since humans first isolated cannabinoids like THC and CBD less than a century ago, how we understand marijuana has changed drastically.
Today, research shows that a strain’s properties has more to do with their cannabinoid and terpene profiles, which genetics play a significant role in. Researchers in the University of New Mexico study determined that CBD was the cannabinoid with the most influence over sleep.
Researchers believe that CBD’s sleep-enhancing traits are a result of the receptors that it binds to. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the pathway that cannabinoids use to influence the body. The ECS features two receptors, CB1 and CB2, in the brain and throughout the body. Researchers believe that CBD’s inability to bind to CB1 receptors may be the key to its sleep-inducing benefits.
The study also determined that cannabinoids alone weren’t causing the overall improvement in sleep that participants experienced. They reached this conclusion after discovering that the relationship between THC and CBD alone didn’t explain the results they were seeing. As a result, they concluded that there was another force at play – terpenes.
Aside from the potent aroma and tastes they provide some terpenes may also influence the sleep cycle. Terpinolene, for example, has sedating effects, along with myrcene and caryophyllene. Researchers believed that the possible sedative effects of these terpenes were at least partially responsible for the improvement that they were seeing in participants’ sleep patterns.
Marijuana and REM Sleep
While cannabis may provide a powerful way to help insomnia users get the sleep they need, it may not be perfect. In one study conducted by Johns Hopkins scientists, researchers measured sleep patterns of 17 heavy cannabis users with 14 non-smokers. They discovered that weed smokers generally had shorter length of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep when compared to non-smokers. That means smokers generally dream less than non-smokers do.
They also discovered that after a heavy marijuana user stops smoking, they may experience significant sleep disturbances. One main outcome that researchers noticed was a spike in REM sleep after a heavy cannabis smoker discontinued use. This corresponded with a heightened, vivid dream states.
Smoking for Sleep
Although there are several different medical applications for weed, one of the most exciting may be its implications for insomnia. Recent data suggests that weed may indeed be a way for those seeking better, more restful sleep to get it. However, there’s still plenty of research to be done surrounding this topic. Luckily, given the recent advances, we may see weed adopted as a way to treat insomnia sooner rather than later.