More than half of American adults have trouble sleeping for a variety of reasons, including stress and anxiety, chronic pain and sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Sleep remedies range from herbal teas and supplements to prescription medications, but a growing number of people are turning to cannabis for sleep.
The benefits of cannabis for sleep come primarily from the cannabis compounds THC and CBD. Both THC and CBD play a role in promoting sleep, but they have different effects, and some studies suggest that your best bet for a sound sleep might include a combination of these with other compounds and terpenes that support sleep.
How Does Cannabis Affect Sleep?
Cannabis is famous for promoting relaxation and drowsiness, thanks to its effects on the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a large network of cell receptors that responds both to naturally produced cannabinoid chemicals and to the compounds in the cannabis plant. Recent research has shown that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in regulating sleep and circadian rhythm.
The ECS supports the production of sleep-inducing neurotransmitters, such as adenosine, and helps to damp down cortisol, adrenaline and other chemicals associated with alertness and arousal. But many things can interfere with these delicate processes, including stress, anxiety and many health conditions, including things like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and restless leg syndrome. Cannabis may help people with these conditions and some types of clinical sleep disorders to fall asleep faster, wake up less during the night and enjoy better sleep quality overall.
But the relationship between cannabis and sleep becomes more complicated when research focuses on the effects of individual compounds like THC and CBD.
THC Can Change Sleep Patterns
Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC is the compound responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. THC typically works as a sedative,THC typically works as a sedative, but it can be stimulating for some users, especially for those who are new to using cannabis or taking higher doses. In these cases, using marijuana before bed may result in taking a longer time to fall asleep.
THC can also promote longer periods of deep, restorative slow-wave sleep. But research suggests that it also shortens the time spent in rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, the period dedicated to dreaming, processing emotions and consolidating memories. That can be helpful for people with PTSD and other conditions that can cause nightmares and distressing dreams that cause waking in the night. But REM sleep is a normal part of healthy sleep, so prolonged suppression of this sleep stage could lead to significant problems with memory and mood.
CBD Relieves Anxiety and Discomforts
CBD is the second most prevalent compound in cannabis. It also activates ECS receptors in the body and brain to support the healthy functioning of many of the body’s subsystems, including mood and pain signaling. Although it occurs alongside THC in full-spectrum cannabis products, CBD has no psychoactive effects, and it can help to moderate the effects of THC. CBD is also available in a variety of products derived from hemp, which contains very little or no THC.
At lower doses, CBD appears to promote alertness. But in higher doses, it can encourage sleepiness. One study worked on the basis that levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, usually hit their peak in the morning. However, those suffering from insomnia may have high cortisol levels at night, making them wake up.
CBD also has a number of benefits for reducing anxiety and depression, and for relieving pain caused by a variety of health issues. All these things can contribute to insomnia, waking during the night and a chronic sleep shortage.
One study suggests that CBD is more promising as a treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders because even though THC may lessen sleep latency, long-term sleep patterns could be negatively affected. CBD may also have fewer side effects for users than THC, since it’s not psychoactive and has no effects on the gastrointestinal system.
Using Cannabis for Sleep
Choosing THC or CBD for sleep depends on individual circumstances, and dedicated cannabis products range from balanced blends to those with higher THC content and completely THC-free CBD edibles and concentrates made from hemp. But it’s important to remember that stopping cannabis can lead to problems with falling or staying asleep, or “REM rebound”—a period of strange dreams or nightmares after REM sleep has been suppressed for a while.