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Guide to Marijuana and Sleep: Effects, REM, & Current Research

A significant portion of the American population is turning to marijuana to help them with their sleeping problems.
Though there is a shortage of data and studies because of marijuana’s illegal status at the federal level; the short answer is that it can be an effective sleep aid in some cases. The substance can also be easily abused and lead to dependence and addiction.

Those who ingest THC are more likely to have less REM sleep. Less REM sleep is associated with less dreaming. If there is no dreaming, deeper sleep is more likely. This is especially useful for PTSD patients who suffer from nightmares.
The deep sleep cycle is the most restful state, but all stages of sleep are essential. Strains of marijuana with higher THC levels are likely useful sleeping aids for some people.

Common Sleep Problems

Problems with sleep afflict many Americans. According to statistics from the American Sleep Association, a whopping 50 to 70 million adults in the United States suffer from a sleep-related disorder.

Out of these sleeping disorders, insomnia is the most common. According to the report, about 30 percent of adults will experience insomnia at some point in their lives. Another 10 percent of the population suffers from chronic insomnia.

Obstructive sleep apnea is another common sleep condition. The throat muscles relax during sleep and obstruct the airways, causing a cessation of breathing in the middle of the night that many don’t even notice or remember.
Oxygen levels in the blood will then start to drop. After about 10 to 20 seconds, the brain panics and restarts the breathing process, causing a brief jolt of wakefulness. This is very disruptive to the natural sleep cycle.

About 25 million adults in America suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Approximately nine to 21 percent of women have obstructive sleep, and 24 to 31 percent of men do.
It has also been found that 3 to 5 percent of obesity cases could be connected to short sleep cycles.

Sleep deprivation is another issue in which many people struggle with. Thirty-seven percent of those 20 to 39 years old complain of short sleep duration. About 40 percent of those 40 to 59 years old report the same problem.
Overall, 35 percent of adults report getting less than seven hours of sleep during a routine 24-hour period. Over 100,000 deaths occur each year from medical mistakes that could be attributed to sleep deprivation.

Is Marijuana the Answer?

It is clear that sleep disorders affect a significant portion of the American population. Could marijuana be an effective treatment for this prominent issue?
There is no question that marijuana use and acceptance are on the rise. In fact, according to statistics published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 47 percent Americans age 26 or over reported using cannabis at least once in their lifetime. The statistics also relay use among younger ages:

  • Among those ages 12 or older, 45 percent have tried it at least once, 15 percent used it in the previous year, and 9 percent used it in the prior month.
  • Among those ages 12 to 17, 15 percent have tried it at least once, 12 percent in the prior year, and 6 percent in the prior month.
  • Among those ages 18 to 25, 52 percent have tried it at least once, 34 percent in the prior year, and 22 percent in the prior month.

Approval of marijuana has gone up, as many claim health benefits the drug can provide.
When it comes to marijuana as a sleep aid, the results seem to be a bit mixed. Cannabis has proven to be a fairly complex drug, with varying effects that depend on each individual strain. There are so many variables to be explored, including how it is administered, the chemical composition of the sample taken, the environment it is used in, and even the mindset of the user.

Different Strains

Marijuana has three different strains primarily, each of which has different psychoactive characteristics. Sativa, for example, is the most commonly used and has the most potent psychoactive effects. Selective breeding and altering of it have increased the potency of the strain and also enhanced various medicinal effects. Because of this, some plants can activate strong psychoactive effects, while others are more sedative.

Marijuana works by affecting the cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system. The cannabinoid, which is most responsible for the psychedelic effect associated with the plant, comes from THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol.

Guide to Drugs and Sleep

In small doses, THC is typically found to be sedating. A moderate dose, however, can cause the opposite effect and be stimulating. A large dose of THC can cause psychedelic effects, and extremely large doses can cause psychotic ones.

What the Research Says

There is plenty of conjecture out there as to whether or not marijuana has any efficacy as a sleep aid. Scientific findings on the subject have been cautious.
Most of the studies revolving around marijuana occurred in the 1970s. Federal prohibition of the drug has halted much of the research surrounding it. New legalization policies have reversed this mentality, and we are likely to see a lot more research surfacing in the future.

A 2008 study published by the National Center of Biotechnology Information showed that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol reduces REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement. This means that your eyes are rapidly moving even though you are not conscious and they are not open.

REM vs. Non-REM Sleep

Sleep typically consists of non-REM sleep, where there is no eye movement, and then a short cycle of REM sleep. Then, it’s back to non-REM sleep once again.Non-REM sleep usually has three stages to it. Each stage lasts from five to 15 minutes. Ordinary sleep will cycle through all three stages before going into REM sleep.
Non-REM sleep stages are as follows:

STAGE 1

You are beginning to drift off to sleep but could easily be awakened. This phase lasts from five to 15 minutes.

STAGE 2

This is a light sleep stage. Heart rate slows, and body temperature will drop.

STAGE 3

This is the most restful stage of sleep. It is also the most difficult stage to be awakened. In the deep sleep stage, the body repairs itself.

As an individual grows older, they spend less and less time in the third stage of non-REM sleep. You also tend to spend less time sleeping overall. REM sleep will occur after all three stages of non-REM sleep are experienced.REM sleep generally occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first cycle of REM sleep lasts about 10 minutes. Progressively, each of your REM stages will last longer. The final REM stage of your sleep cycle could last up to an hour.
During REM sleep, your heart rate and breathing will quicken. REM sleep is also typically where powerful dreaming occurs.

A Mixed Bag

It is generally understood that deep sleep is the most restorative, and THC use generally expands the time in the deep sleep state. However, science may not be that straightforward.
An article by MDedge news covered an annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. There, one speaker noted that long-term marijuana use has a host of issues people seem to have forgotten, including decreased cognitive activity, lack of motivation, and, in some cases, psychotic effects.

When it comes to sleep, a consensus of research found that marijuana helped to increase slow-wave sleep, also known as deep sleep. This is generally considered a good thing, but a study published on slow-wave sleep by the National Center of Biotechnology Information could not conclusively prove the relationship between slow-wave sleep and restorative properties.

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Other studies have found THC to reduce REM sleep, which is often associated with a more active sleep that is less restorative. However, it was also found that long-term use of marijuana actually caused a decrease in slow-wave sleep and caused inconsistent REM sleep patterns, which caused sleep fragmentation. It was noted that this would cause a vicious cycle of sleep disruption, where long-term marijuana use to treat a sleep disorder would progressively cause more sleep disruption in the long term, causing more marijuana use to be needed in order to achieve the same effect.

It was also found that marijuana withdrawal specifically caused a significant disturbance in sleep patterns. Marijuana withdrawal led to increased REM sleep as well as increased limb movement during sleep. One doctor at the annual meeting noted that marijuana withdrawal sleep effects could be noticed within 24 hours of cessation, and they could last for up to six weeks.

Because of this mixed bag of results, using marijuana as a sleep management tool has become a controversial topic in the medical field. While marijuana use for treating insomnia has seen some success, studies have shown some mixed results because of the vast variety that can occur with each form of marijuana’s different CBD to THC ratio.

Not for Long-Term Use

Overall, it is generally found that marijuana is an effective aid to induce sleepiness in the short term. In the long term, it can cause a disruptive cycle that ultimately results in a net loss of sleep. This information suggests that marijuana can be useful as an occasional aid for sleep issues, but it should not be considered a long-term solution.

Synthetic Marijuana

One thing that it seems most in the medical field can agree on is that synthetic marijuana effects are far more unpredictable.
Since synthetic marijuana works similarly in the brain to the natural stuff, binding to the same brain receptor, many may be tempted to turn to it as a sleep aid. However, synthetic marijuana generally produces much stronger effects. As a result, it can be far more dangerous and unpredictable.

There have not been many studies done on the long-term effects of synthetic marijuana. The chemical composition can vary greatly depending on each product, which can cause significantly different effects than one might expect.

Here are a few warning signs to look for if you believe someone you know may be developing a dependence on synthetic marijuana:

  • Unable to stop using the drug
  • A steady decline in responsibility
  • Using the drug in hazardous situations
  • Social withdrawal and decreased interest
  • Increased secrecy
  • Changes in appetite
  • Mood swings, and a shift in personality
  • Increased likelihood of legal troubles
  • Withdrawal symptoms after stopping use
  • Steadily increasing the amount used

Marijuana, whether synthetic or natural, can be habit-forming. Monitor use, and if you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of dependence, talk to an addiction specialist about how to move forward.

Conclusion

Talk to your doctor before you attempt to use marijuana as a sleep aid. While it is generally considered that marijuana can work as a short-term sleep aid, results vary depending on several factors.

Medical marijuana is rapidly growing in popularity. As such, it is important for professionals and consumers alike to reexamine their preconceived notions of marijuana treatments and to increase scientific study.

Short-term use of marijuana has been shown by several studies to increase short-wave sleep (SWS), also known as deep sleep, which is known for its restorative properties. It has also been shown to reduce time in REM sleep, which is known for being a sleep state where the brain is most active.

Some studies have shown that long-term marijuana treatment for sleep can cause a cycle of sleep disruption that may actually exacerbate sleep disorders such as insomnia. As such, it is good to have a medical professional supervise all use.