According to The Sleep Foundation, 70% of young adults who ‘casually use’ cannabis do so to help with sleep. Around 50% of long-term cannabis users (who have been using cannabis for 10+ years) do the same, while a huge 85% of those who say they use cannabis for medical reasons find it improves their sleep as a welcome side effect.
However, despite anecdotally supporting sleep, there’s also a belief among the scientific community that THC – the most abundant and main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis – is more of a hindrance in this area. Something that is perhaps reflected by claims that chronic use of high-THC cannabis stops the user from dreaming.
With such contrasting reports, it can be tricky to know which is true. But the thing that makes it confusing, is the fact that it’s both. So, let’s explore exactly how cannabis affects sleep to deepen your understanding and help you use cannabis in the best possible way for your needs.
Is weed good for sleep?
As the aforementioned stats suggest, an awful lot of people feel as though cannabis does help them sleep. But ‘sleep’ is a word that covers quite a complex process with several stages – all of which are affected by cannabis in different ways. This, combined with the fact that ‘cannabis’ is also a word that encompasses over 140 cannabinoids, up to 100 terpenes, and flavonoids, in a vast number of ratio variations depending on the strain of cannabis used, makes the question ‘is weed good for sleep’ a very complicated one!
First of all, it’s key to understand the four different stages of sleep, and sleep cycles:
Stage 1: This stage is known as ‘wakefulness sleep’, and refers to the period where you are falling asleep, as well as the time in the sleep cycle (which goes round and round all night) when you’re most easily disturbed. On average, this stage lasts 1-10 minutes. During this time, your brain processing starts to slow down and your body relaxes.
Stage 2: Known as ‘light sleep’, this is the time when you have just fallen asleep. You’re not dreaming at this point, but you are now fully asleep, unaware of your surroundings, and harder to wake. This lasts 10-60 minutes, during which time your brain waves change, your body temperature drops, your muscles completely relax and your breathing slows. It’s believed that this time plays a role in long-term memory consolidation and sensory processing.
Stage 3: Now you’re in ‘deep sleep’ (NREM/Slow-Wave Sleep (SWS), Delta Sleep, Deep Sleep) for 20 – 60 minutes. Many experts believe this is ‘the most important’ and deepest stage of sleep, as it’s during this stage that your mind and body recover, grow, heal and build up energy. It’s this period that really enables proper brain function and boosts memory.
Stage 4: Known as REM sleep, this is when we have our most vivid dreams, and brain activity increases, as you cycle back around. Most people have 4-6 sleep cycles a night. This stage lasts 10 – 60 minutes, during which time you experience temporary paralysis of the muscles, apart from the eyes and the muscles that control breathing. This stage is believed to be essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity.
Interestingly, the sleep-wake cycle continues throughout the day. But we’ll save going into that for another time!
How does THC affect the sleep cycle?
As the most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis, it’s perhaps no surprise that THC appears to impact ‘sleep architecture’ the most.
Research suggests that THC supports stages 1-3 three of the sleep cycle, which is likely why many people find cannabis very helpful for allowing them to fall asleep faster, and stay asleep longer.
Does cannabis stop you dreaming?
Evidence also indicates that THC reduces REM (stage 4) sleep, which is probably why so many people find that they stop dreaming with chronic cannabis use, even in low doses.
While this is definitely not ideal for most people, it can provide benefit to those who suffer from nightmares – a very common symptom of PTSD, which is not only a fairly prevalent stand-alone condition, but is even more common among those with chronic illness. It’s thought that 15 – 35% of people with chronic pain will go on to develop PTSD as a result. So it’s really about weighing up what is best for you.
Does cannabis help with insomnia?
Insomnia is one of the most common reasons people use cannabis, and it certainly does seem to have the potential to help – with this, and a range of other sleep disorders. In fact, one study found that by using cannabis, 39% of patients were able to “reduce or completely discontinue a prescription medication indicated for sleep”. On follow-up, 71% reported “a subjective improvement in their sleep or related condition”.
Does CBN help with sleep?
CBN is a controlled substance in the UK, however, it’s the new kid on the block for cannabinoid-based sleep products in the US and Canada. But does it really work? Despite all the claims, the evidence to suggest it actually does work as a sleep aid is…pretty non-existent! The studies that support anecdotal claims of CBN’s therapeutic potential to aid sleep actually combine CBN and THC, which means it’s probably THC doing all the leg work.
Does CBD help with sleep?
We could dedicate a whole new article to using CBD for sleep (and many others besides, looking at other cannabinoids and terpenes, which also play important roles). But, in short, CBD does also appear to help with sleep – without altering sleep architecture, like THC. Which is good for some, but not so good for those that want to reduce dreams/nightmares.
Like all cannabinoids, CBD is what’s known as a ‘pleiotropic’, meaning it has a wide variety of mechanisms via different pathways in the body (just to make things even more complicated). There’s the way it supports the endocannabinoid system, boosting natural levels of Anandamide and 2-AG, both of which are also related to healthy sleep and reducing anxiety, which is a common cause of sleep problems.
Then, of equal importance, CBD also aids in boosting serotonin levels – a neurotransmitter that is needed to create melatonin (a natural hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle). But, it’s worth noting that CBDa (found in hemp tea and raw cannabis, before decarboxylation) is actually 1000 times more potent on serotonin receptors than CBD, so if you’re wanting to try using CBD for sleep it’s well worth giving hemp tea a go too!
But, again like all cannabinoids, the actions of CBD (and THC) are very dose-dependent. And can have polar opposite effects depending on the dose. While 15mg of CBD has been shown to be alerting, a large retrospective case series at a psychiatric clinic found that 160mg, 300mg – 600mg appears to make you sleepy and increase the duration of sleep. There’s also some research that suggests administering CBD and THC together can be problematic for sleep, possibly due to the way CBD ‘cancels out’ some of the sedative and euphoric properties of THC.
This is merely scratching the surface of how cannabis works with the sleep cycle. Terpenes, such as Myrcene, are also well known for having their own sedative and relaxant effects, while other minor cannabinoids are likely to bring their own, unique properties to the table too.
But hopefully this insight into the best understood cannabinoids, THC and CBD, will help you better understand your relationship with cannabis and sleep, and how to use it for the best results.
Ruby Deevoy is a U.K. cannabis journalist with years of experience covering CBD and cannabis in mainstream publications such as The Independent, The Mirror, The National, Elle, Red, Top Sante and Natural Health magazine. She’s also the U.K’s only CBD columnist, writing monthly for Top Sante magazine, cannabis agony aunt for Leafie, writes the Indybest CBD product lists, is founder of The CBD Consultancy and is the primary press member for The Cannabis Industry Council. Tweets @RDeevoy.