Sleeping can be a problem for many of us. It’s thought that one in three people experience some kind of insomnia. It may be trouble nodding off or staying in a slumber once you’ve fallen asleep—or both.
Numerous studies show that cannabis can be a valuable sleep aid, such as in this 2011 study where subjects reported it took less time to fall asleep after consuming cannabis. They said that their quality of sleep improved, too.
But where do you start if you want to try marijuana as a sleep aid? And are the recommendations different for those who have trouble falling asleep versus folks who have trouble staying asleep? The short answer is yes.
What Is Insomnia?
While most of us understand that insomnia means having trouble sleeping, there are actually two kinds of insomnia: primary and secondary.
- Primary insomnia: This is basically a straightforward sleeping problem. People with primary insomnia don’t have another health problem causing the sleep issues.
- Secondary insomnia: This is when another health problem causes insomnia. Culprits can include: asthma, depression or pain disorders. Medications or alcohol dependency can also cause secondary insomnia.
Marijuana’s Balancing Properties Help With Primary Insomnia
If you’re suffering from primary insomnia, cannabis may be able to help. The cannabinoids in the plant help balance our endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a network of receptors found nearly everywhere in the body including in muscle tissue, the gut and parts of the brain.
It’s thought that a balanced ECS is essential for a healthy body—and that includes sleep. So, by consuming the amount and ratio of cannabinoids that balances your ECS, you can help your body fall into naturally beneficial sleep patterns.
How Cannabis Can Help With Secondary Insomnia
Medical marijuana has a good track record in addressing some of the underlying health conditions that lead to secondary insomnia.
For example, if chronic pain keeps you up, cannabis is known to address this and help achieve sleep. But researchers agree that further study on cannabinoids and sleep is needed.
Similarly, if your broken rest comes from sleep apnea, there’s research suggesting that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may help with the sleep-disordered breathing that often causes the condition. A 2013 study found that synthetic THC helped improve the nighttime breathing symptoms of sleep apnea patients, depending on dose.
People suffering from PTSD may also have trouble sleeping. A 2009 study discovered that THC enabled PTSD sufferers to sleep longer with fewer flashbacks.
Marijuana for Falling Asleep vs. Staying Asleep
A sleep cycle is composed of five stages:
- Falling to sleep/transitional stage
- Light sleep
- First stage of deeper sleep
- Second stage of deeper sleep
- REM (rapid eye movement) sleep
The first two stages, transitional and light sleep, are where you may go in and out of slumber from the get-go. These are the stages to pay attention to if you struggle to fall asleep. Cannabis’s sedative effects can help promote the relaxation your body and brain need to drift off to sleep.
Meanwhile, folks who have trouble staying asleep usually have problems with the last sleep stage. REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after nodding off and typically lasts 10 minutes. Your breathing and heart rate quicken, your eyes dart around, and this is the time you have intense dreams because of the brain’s increased activity. This activity can jolt people out of sleep and then it can be hard to go back to dreamland.
That said, cannabis can actually reduce the amount of REM sleep we get, letting us stay in the deeper stages of sleep longer. Proponents say more deep sleep, with its restorative qualities is better for us.
However, others warn that the reduction in REM sleep may come at a cost. By cutting down on REM, cannabis consumption could bear certain long-term health consequences, perhaps interfering with immune and cognitive functions. More research needs to be done to
But if you start consuming cannabis and think that less REM sleep is hindering you, all you have to do is abstain from the plant for a bit and your dreams will return. A bit of experimentation is always needed to see what kind of marijuana affects you and in what way.
How Should You Take Your Marijuana Sleep Aid?
If you do want to try cannabis to help with your sleep issues, quick-acting smoking and vaping may be best for getting to sleep. A puff or two on the right vaporizer or joint typically have you feeling sedative effects in just minutes.
On the other hand, cannabis edibles are processed through the liver. This means they take longer to kick in, but they last longer than other consumption methods do. So, if you’re having trouble staying asleep, a marijuana edible may be your best bet.
Just be aware you’ll have to experiment to find the right dose and timing for you. Most people experience the effects of a cannabis edible within an hour or two, so figuring out when to eat the edible so that you don’t get sleepy before you’re ready for bed—or are lying awake in bed waiting for it to kick in—is important.
And when it comes to cannabis strains, you have a choice of sativa, indica and hybrid. Sativa strains are often thought to be better for daytime use, with their energetic, uplifting effects. Indicas may be better for getting to sleep. But really it all depends on the cannabinoid profile of the product you consume and how you personally tolerate certain cannabinoids. One strain that may put someone to sleep could instead energize another person.
That said, some strains that most people report induce sleep include:
Can Cannabis Keep You Awake?
Evidence suggests that while moderate cannabis consumption can help you sleep as well as stay asleep, heavy use may interfere with your sleep patterns.
A study from 2016 suggests that daily marijuana consumers had more pronounced insomnia than less-frequent users did. Daily marijuana users may also be more prone to sleep problems if they quit.
As with everything, moderation is the key when it comes to cannabis use for insomnia. Marijuana is like any medicine and should only be used as necessary. So, if you can combine lifestyle changes that could help resolve your sleep problems—less alcohol or caffeine, better diet and regular exercise, for example—and incorporate the right amount of cannabis for you, you’ll hopefully be on a healthy route to better sleep.
Photo credit: Abbie Bernet