Cannabis and Sleep: Help or Hindrance?

Sleep disorders affect up to 40% of Canadians, and 30% of Americans, so it’s no wonder that insomnia is among the top two reasons for medical cannabis prescriptions in legal countries. The other top reason? Pain, which, in many cases, also leads to sleeplessness. And sleeplessness doesn’t only affect your energy, but also your memory, weight, creativity, heart and stress levels. The vast majority of humans needs between 7-9 hours of sleep a night. And while there are a small percentage of people who need more or less sleep than this, these people are really the outliers. If you don’t get enough sleep, then you won’t be functioning at your best, even if you temporarily prop yourself up with caffeine. Research shows that not getting enough sleep night-after-night is associated with a whole host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes and depression.

Biologically, it’s been found that the human body’s CB1 receptorsare involved in sleep regulation. Studies from as early as the 1970s showed that THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) affects the CB1 receptor and causes an increase in deep sleep and a decrease in REM sleep, which ultimately changes and adjusts the way our bodies rest. Whether that adjustment is necessary for you, only you and your doctor should decide.

Besides easing insomnia, cannabis seems to have a wide range of effects on sleep. This is because chemicals in cannabis, known as cannabinoids, actually mimic the activity of chemicals found naturally in the brain. These chemicals and their biological pathways make up the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for regulating sleep, among other things.

First, here’s a quick primer on the science behind marijuana. This herb works because it contains different cannabinoids, two of which you’ll see most often:

  • Cannabidiol (CBD).CBD has a number of health benefits, and is nonpsychoactive, meaning it doesn’t cause you to feel “high.”
  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).THC, a psychoactive cannabinoid, is primarily responsible for that “high” feeling.

Something else THC is responsible for? Inducing sleep. So you’ll want a strain that contains more THC than CBD.

According to a 2008 study, ingesting marijuana strains with higher levels of THC typically reduces the amount of REM sleep you get. Reducing REM sleep means reducing dreams — and for those who experience PTSD, it could mean reducing nightmares.

So the theory is that if you spend less time dreaming, you’ll spend more time in a deep sleep state. The deep sleep state is thought to be the most restorative, restful part of the sleep cycle.

Still, REM is important for healthy cognitive and immune functioning, and marijuana with higher THC levels could impair your sleep quality if taken long-term.

When it comes to medical use, marijuana could offer an incredible benefit to the approximately 25% of men and 9% of women who suffer from a disorder called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is characterized by disrupted breathing during sleep, and has been linked to a number of serious conditions, including diabetes and heart problems. Unfortunately, the vast majority of sleep apnea sufferers remain undiagnosed and untreated. Even of those who seek treatment, many eventually give up on wearing a CPAP mask every night.

But that’s where marijuana may help, as researchers are currently trialing THC as an alternative, with early results already showing promise. If clinical trials are successful, sleep apnea patients may one day have the option of swapping a bulky sleep mask for popping a few pills before bed.

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