Especially among veterans with PTSD, a large body of anecdotal evidence exists showing that cannabis helps you sleep. Exactly how it helps you sleep and whether that sleep is of helpful quality is still debated in medical circles. As with many aspects of the pharmacology of marijuana, the social stigma and legal hurdles around experimenting with pot have left us with a dearth of scientific literature on the matter.
Scientists conducted a lot of research on marijuana in the 1960s and 70s, but legal restrictions choked off many avenues for that research. But since different states now allow the sale of medical and recreational marijuana, scientific investigation in the therapeutic effects of cannabis has experienced a renaissance. The effect of marijuana on sleep is one aspect of that renewed interest.
An important impetus for the study of how cannabis helps you sleep is the widespread use of cannabis among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – many of whom reported having post-traumatic stress disorder. The chief reason these traumatized vets reported using pot to cope, according to a 2014 study, is that it helped them sleep.
How does marijuana affect sleep?
Sleep is an active process that has four distinct neurological stages through the night, labeled stages I through IV and, collectively, Non-Rapid-Eye-Movement sleep. This progression is followed by a period of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, during which brain wave signals are similar to those of the waking mind.
What scant literature there is comes to the general conclusion that marijuana use tends to deepen and lengthen the periods of Non-Rapid-Eye-Movement (N-REM) sleep and shorten the REM cycle.
If this holds true in future studies, it has pros and cons. Pro: N-REM sleep is restorative and necessary, and cannabinoids in marijuana can help users reach that state and stay in that state longer. Con: REM sleep is vital. Researchers still aren’t sure of its precise physiological purpose, but losing REM sleep tends to make you groggy and less alert during the day.
What do we know about how cannabis helps you sleep?
There are a couple of points of consensus borne out by more robust cannabis research.
One is that habitual cannabis users have trouble sleeping as a withdrawal symptom from stopping cannabis use. The other is that cannabis, specifically the cannabinoid component cannibidiol (CBD), has a marked anxiety-reducing and analgesic effect. It’s useful in conjunction with the other most potent cannabinoid in marijuana, Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Studies show these active ingredients improve the sleep of people with all kinds of pain-induced and anxiety-induced insomnia.
This was described in a study using a pharmaceutical distillation called Sativex, made of CBD and THC in a one-to-one ratio:
“No tolerance to the benefit of Sativex on pain or sleep, nor need for dosage increases have been noted in safety extension studies of up to four years, wherein 40–50% of subjects attained good or very good sleep quality”.
Though this study was done using a pharmaceutical distillation of the active chemicals, CBD and THC are often found in similar ratios in different strains of whole marijuana. However, these pharmaceutical distills do not include the other 100+ cannabinoids found in cannabis nor the vast array of terpenes. Thus, studies that use distillates like Sativex are not considering the medical benefits of cannabis for sleep when consumed naturally– a process that allows for all the cannabinoids and terpenes to be consumed in parallel, allowing for what is known as the entourage effect.
Future research into cannabis and sleep should be cautious to take into account the medicinal benefits that arise from the entourage effect. Keep in mind that certain strains of cannabis are more appropriate for sleep than others. Be sure to check out our list of sleep strains to find which is best helping you get the rest you need.
REFERENCES FOR HOW CANNABIS HELPS YOU SLEEP
Cannabis, Pain, and Sleep: Lessons from Therapeutic Clinical Trials of Sativex®, a Cannabis-Based Medicine
Ethan B. Russo, Geoffrey W. Guy, Philip J. Robson
Chemistry and Biodiversity
The effects of cannabinoid administration on sleep: a systematic review of human studies
Peter J. Gates, Lucy Albertella, Jan Copeland of the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre, UNSW Medicine, Australia
Sleep Medicine Reviews
Cannabidiol, a constituent of Cannabis sativa, modulates sleep in rats
Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Diana Millán-Aldaco, Marcela Palomero-Rivero, Raphael Mechoulam, René Drucker-Colín
Effect of cannabidiol on sleep disruption induced by the repeated combination tests consisting of open field and elevated plus-maze in rats.
Hsiao YT, Yi PL, Li CL, Chang FC.
Sleep Disturbance in Heavy Marijuana Users
Karen I. Bolla, PhD, et al
The Journal Sleep
Effectiveness of Cannabidiol Oil for Pediatric Anxiety and Insomnia as Part of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Report
Scott Shannon, MD, ABIHM
Using cannabis to help you sleep: Heightened frequency of medical cannabis use among those with PTSD
Marcel O. Bonn-Millera, Kimberly A. Babsonc, Ryan Vandreyd
Drug and Alcohol Dependence