There has always been a lot of interest around cannabis as a potential sleep aid. Recently, the plant has started to look promising as an adjunct for some sleep-related issues. Yet, we still need a better understanding of the short and long-term effects of cannabis on sleep to determine its scope of efficacy.

Cannabis may relieve daily tension and worry that interfere with the ability to fall asleep, and it may even shorten the time it takes to fall asleep. But is it a real natural alternative to pharmaceutical sleep aids? Or is it just a little last pleasure before going to bed?

WHICH CANNABIS STRAINS PROMOTE SLEEP?

When looking at cannabis’ effects on sleep, it helps to consider both individual phytochemicals and specific cannabis cultivars themselves. Usually, people associate indicas with low-energy and sleepy effects. Conversely, sativas tend to be more upbeat, energetic, and mentally active.

However, it’s becoming more clear that the distinction between indica and sativa is not accurate nor particularly useful. Instead, attention has started to shift towards the exact composition of cannabinoids and terpenes as the factor that most influences a strain’s effects.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico recorded self-perceived insomnia levels[1] from 400 individuals, prior to and following medical cannabis consumption. The results showed that consumption of cannabis flower was associated with actual improvements in insomnia, with varying effectiveness and side effects depending on the strain and consumption method.

The researchers also noted that strains with more CBD were associated with better sleep.

THC AND CBD: WHICH IS BETTER AT PROMOTING SLEEP?

More than 100 cannabinoids have been identified in cannabis. The most abundant, well-known cannabinoids, though, are THC and CBD. They’ve been studied together and separately, and, as we’ll discuss, different effects have been observed in different settings. More often than not, the two compounds appear to work best together.

CBD FOR SLEEP

Most studies on sleep involve THC more than CBD. We don’t know exactly how CBD affects sleep, but we know it can help promote relaxation. Evidence[2] shows that CBD has a soothing effect on the central nervous system, along with a potential ability to reduce daytime sleepiness. This double-sided action could be useful in balancing the sleep-wake cycle as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Despite the cannabinoid being promising for some sleep-related issues, the same 2019 study referenced above found 25% of participants experiencing poor sleep to report worsened symptoms with CBD.

THC FOR SLEEP

Research widely confirms that THC has sedative effects[3]. A study on multiple substances’ effects on sleep confirmed this, finding THC[4] to shorten sleep latency among people with or without sleep problems.

Even among the group of strong sleepers, cannabis helped them fall asleep faster. Moreover, it was found that synthetic cannabinoids that mimic THC, such as nabilone and dronabinol, may benefit sleep apnea[5] due to their modulatory effects on serotonin-mediated apneas.

A review[6] of the literature up to 2014 found that, while THC may actually decrease sleep latency, it could impair sleep quality long-term. However, there are many factors involved in sleep quality, and we still know very little about the long-term effects of THC on sleep. This cannabinoid facilitates sleep for some, but others find that high doses of THC make them more paranoid or restless. Those feelings, of course, are not optimal when it’s time to go to bed.

Further research on cannabis and sleep is likely to involve different doses of THC and CBD used in tandem. Since CBD’s effects on sleep are more indirect than THC, anecdotal evidence indicates that strains with a balanced THC:CBD ratio are more effective in promoting natural sleep while reducing the psychoactive side effects of THC.

THC and CBD for Sleep

THC AS A DREAM-REDUCER

REM sleep is the sleep phase linked to dreaming, learning, and forming new memories. The other stage of sleep, the deep, slow-wave sleep phase, is instead important for mental recovery and memory consolidation. In most people, THC appears to alter time spent in these different stages of sleep. Specifically, it reduces the time spent in REM sleep and increases time in slow-wave sleep.

As a result, a night-time cannabis user won’t have as many dreams, or as vivid dreams, as a non-user. This might be positive, neutral, or negative, depending on the kind of dreams and consequent feelings you experience without cannabis. This particular property of THC can be really helpful for people with frequent or disturbing dreams and nightmares.

For those who want to keep dreaming, though, decreasing or quitting cannabis use has been found to restore the natural REM cycle and consequent dreaming.

OTHER CANNABIS COMPOUNDS THAT MAY PROMOTE SLEEP

In addition to THC and CBD, a few other cannabinoids have shown mild sleep-promoting or relaxing effects. To start, cannabinol, or CBN, is a minor cannabinoid with a very mild psychoactive action and potential relaxation-inducing effects. Its low psychoactivity and lack of intoxicating qualities make the cannabinoid an intriguing potential alternative to THC for sleep-related issues.

Research into terpenes has also found myrcene, terpineol, linalool, and caryophyllene to all display mild soporific, sometimes even analgesic, properties. Even the mood-boosting limonene[7] may help with sleep too!

SIDE EFFECTS OF CANNABIS ON SLEEP

Studies looking at how cannabis influences sleep have delivered mixed results, often influenced by factors such as personal tolerance and many other clinical and lifestyle factors.

Analysis of the adverse effects are mixed as well. While cannabis might help you sleep in the short-term, it could lead to poorer sleep[8] with heavy, long-term use. Moreover, studies have found that discontinuing long-term[9] use might lead to shorter sleep time, worse sleep efficiency, longer sleep onset, and sleep disruption.

CANNABIS FOR SLEEP: AN ETERNAL DEBATE

Research on cannabis and sleep is still in its infancy. Many new small-scale studies have been published in the past few years, yet none of them have been conclusive.

Present and future research might be promising for people with all sorts of sleep issues. However, we are in need of large-scale clinical trials on the safety and efficacy of cannabis over longer time periods to determine its viability in this arena.

Cannabis might already be your key to getting ready for sleep. However, you should be aware that any long-term alterations to your sleep pattern can reduce the restorative effects of sleep.

That said, cannabis strains containing relaxing terpenes, some CBD, and not too much THC are believed to be most beneficial for promoting sleep readiness. Lastly, note that the beneficial effects of cannabis are enhanced, or even substituted, by other natural sleep aids like healthy diet and exercise.

External Resources:
  1. Effectiveness of Raw, Natural Medical Cannabis Flower for Treating Insomnia under Naturalistic Conditions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  2. Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series - PubMed https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  3. Sedative activity of cannabis in relation to its delta'-trans-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol content. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  4. Effect of illicit recreational drugs upon sleep: cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  5. Frontiers | Proof of Concept Trial of Dronabinol in Obstructive Sleep Apnea | Psychiatry https://www.frontiersin.org
  6. Cannabis, Cannabinoids, and Sleep: a Review of the Literature - PubMed https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  7. Central effects of citral, myrcene and limonene, constituents of essential oil chemotypes from Lippia alba (Mill.) n.e. Brown - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  8. Penn Medicine Study Finds Marijuana Use May Impair Sleep Quality – PR News https://www.pennmedicine.org
  9. Sleep Disturbance in Heavy Marijuana Users https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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