This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on May 10, 2018
Now legal in over 30 states (particularly for medicinal use), marijuana has become an increasingly popular, though still controversial, contestant for use as a sleep aid. From TV to books to movies, pot smokers are often depicted as sleepy, chilled out and relaxed -- so why not consider it as a solution for a slew of problems including anxiety and insomnia? Cannabis websites likes Greenstate have been lauding weed as a solution for sleeping pill poppers, filling site pages with glowing testimonials of its efficacy. High Times, a leading cannabis magazine, compares marijuana with melatonin to help readers understand the similarities, differences and benefits of the drug as a sleep aid. While marijuana holds a reputation for relaxing its users, there’s still so much to be learned about the widespread effects of the drug and its validity as a sedative. Some studies have explored weed’s impact on sleep and, though it’s definitely a better sleep aid than alcohol, there are still some complicated caveats to habitual nighttime use.
So How Does It Work
While marijuana’s impact on the body is dependent on numerous factors (strain, environment, dosage, etc.), the key to cannabis’ properties as a sleep aid is the endocannabinoid system, a unique system in our bodies which has multiple roles. In particular, this system can subdue our stress and anxiety responses. Cannabis is one of the only substances that specifically influences this complex system.
There are two distinctive cannabinoids or chemicals that impact how we experience cannabis: cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). According to this 2008 study, it’s THC that induces sleep by activating what is called the CB1 receptors (part of the endocannabinoid system). It is also said to abbreviate the sleep latency period (the time it takes to fall asleep). In 2014, this study claims that CBD, on the other hand, promotes wakefulness.
There are also, according to cannabis culture, two distinctive strains with reputations for affecting individuals in two different ways, sativas and indicas. Sativas are said to energize, indicas to relax away. In reality, there may not be as much truth to this as previously thought. Basically, neither strain is chemically consistent enough for a statement like that to be legitimate. In fact, the true difference in the two strains is the way the plants look physically not the chemical make-up.
That said, age, experience with the substance, frequency of use and mode of ingestion are also pieces to the puzzle of how marijuana can impact a user -- especially one looking for a specific outcome.
While marijuana sounds like an easy and even fun fix to frustrating sleep problems, there are several big caveats to the weed-as-sleep-aid trend. First, this research suggests that the drug could impair sleep quality for those who used it as teenagers.
Second, marijuana can lessen REM sleep, the most restorative part of the sleep cycle. Regular marijuana users may also experience a rebound in REM resulting in vivid dreams after periods of less REM sleep. This downside is especially concerning; individuals struggling to sleep are looking to improve their health and the use of marijuana could potentially cause a new problem instead of providing a solution.
Finally, those who use marijuana to get to sleep at night are also prone to what some call a “weed hangover,” the experience of feeling extra tired the following day.
All in all, there’s not enough concrete evidence verifying the long-term effectiveness of cannabis as a sleep aid. Certainly, it can be relaxing and may relieve pain, but its ability to help individuals sleep consistently is yet to be proven.
Cannabis research as a whole is a widening field of study. As marijuana becomes legal in more and more states, all practical applications of the drug will likely be explored, researchers are sure to find more healthy ways to utilize the drug’s positive properties soon.
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