What You Need to Know About Cannabis and Sleep

May 19, 2019

I’ve had a lot of patients and others of you ask me about using cannabis for sleep. I thought I’d take some time to go over some information that may be helpful in understanding how cannabis can affect sleep and sleep-related issues, and whether cannabis is something to consider for your sleep problems, in consultation with your physician.

The cannabis plant has been used for centuries as a sleep aid. Contemporary scientific research has measured what people have known and experienced since ancient times: cannabis has relaxing and sedative effects. In particular, cannabis makes falling asleep easier.

One recent study found that cannabis shortens the time it takes to fall asleep, both for people with sleep problems and people who fall asleep without trouble. Among people with active difficulty falling asleep, cannabis use resulted in an average of 30 minutes less time in falling asleep. The study also included a group of people who were able to fall asleep without difficulty. Among this group of strong sleepers, cannabis helped them fall asleep even faster, by 15 minutes.

This research aligns with other studies that show cannabis use reduces the time it takes to fall asleep, and lengthens time spent in deep, slow wave sleep. Cannabis also appears to shorten time spent in REM sleep, likely as a result of one of its primary active ingredients, THC (more on this important component of cannabis in a minute.)

Cannabis contains many different natural chemicals that affect sleep

Cannabis has dozens of different natural chemical compounds that have effects on sleep, and sleep cycles. There are two main components to cannabis I’ll focus on today that are important to sleep: cannabinoids and terpenes.

Cannabinoids

Scientists have identified more than 100 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Many are being studied for their benefits for sleep and other health conditions, including psychological conditions like depression and anxiety, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, seizure disorders, different forms of cancer, and chronic pain.

Three of the best-known cannabinoids all have effects on sleep.

CBD

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a non-mind-altering cannabinoid that promotes relaxation.

Last week, I talked about the latest scientific evidence illustrating many of the benefits of CBD, including for sleep.  (I’ve written about CBD before: you can read about it here, and here.) CBD has no psychoactive effects—that means there’s no “high” associated with this compound. Scientists think instead that CBD works to balance or counteract the high that’s delivered from another cannabinoid, THC.

CBD has gained a lot of attention for its ability to reduce anxiety, relieve pain, promote mental focus and clarity. CBD also has the ability to reduce daytime sleepiness and promote alertness. Studies of CBD show that it reduces anxiety without affecting sleep-wake cycles.

CBN

Cannabinol, or CBN, is a less well-known cannabinoid than CBD. It appears to have powerful sedative effects, which may be enhanced when it’s combined with THC. CBN also has pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory properties. Studies suggest CBN stimulates appetite. (CBD, on the other hand, appears to suppress appetite.) CBN is found in aged cannabis, when, over time, THC converts naturally to CBN.

I’ve written recently about the emerging research about how CBN helps sleep and pain.

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