Sleep Scientists Agree That Weed Affects Sleep Quality
The legalization of recreational marijuana (MJ) that began in Colorado sparked a wildfire of copycats throughout the U.S. after the state generated a revenue of $194 million in 2016 on legal MJ sales. Currently, ten states have legalized recreational use (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington).
Thus, this is the dawning of the age of weed enthusiasts who allude that weed is the cure for everything – from chronic back pain to insomnia. As much as we would all like to believe that weed is the holy grail of all medicine and as harmless as using baby body wash in the shower, sleep medicine scientists reckon that weed disrupts sleep quality.
Dr. Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, and author of the book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, says that although MJ helps people fall asleep faster, it is debatable whether it is naturalistic sleep because cannabis blocks REM (rapid eye movement) or dream sleep.
As I write this, I’m imagining all the weed enthusiasts picking up their pitchforks and marching out to go on a witch hunt. Just kidding. They most likely will stifle a small laugh of incredulous disbelief or shrug their shoulders and open a new tab to read something more worthwhile like “Ten New Ways to Eat Pizza in Bed”.
But really, all jokes aside, does weed really help you sleep?
1. Withdrawal from cannabis causes sleep problems for about two weeks afterward. Researchers were able to detect sleep brainwave changes in participants who were previously heavy MJ users. They found that REM sleep and sleep efficiency were decreased in these participants after they stopped using MJ. However, they were unsure if they were simply withdrawing or unmasking a previous sleep disorder.
2. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, weed might actually be harmful.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder where you have episodes where you stop breathing when you sleep due to your throat muscles intermittently relaxing. A recognizable sign of OSA is snoring. When researchers initially studied cannabinoids on rats with OSA, they found improvement of OSA. However, in humans, the responses were all over the page – with some participants showing improvement while others showing worsening of their OSA. So far, they believe that the mice trials were pre-mature and that it’s best to avoid using cannabinoids for the treatment of OSA in humans for now due to the potential harm until more studies are done.
3. Weed decreases total REM sleep.
Weed does help you fall asleep. However, researchers found that THC is found to decrease REM sleep. What is REM sleep and why is it important? REM sleep is the stage where you dream; it is the stage of sleep where there is “wake-like” eye and brain activity. For humans and animals, studies show that REM sleep is vital to memory consolidation and learning. How did they find this out? Well, researchers would do experiments on volunteers where they would wake the participants when they entered the REM stage. They found that the participants had more difficulty with memory tasks involving visual, emotional and story learning elements. Imagine how annoyed you would be in the morning if you had someone poking you awake whenever you were about to fall deeply asleep. Well, that is essentially what they think weed might do to your sleep. However, this is still a highly debated topic since the memory consolidation REM theory remains a hypothesis.
4. In multiple large clinical trials, participants report a large positive improvement in sleep.
Out of 28 studies with a total number of 3658 volunteers, 20 of these studies had self-reported positive improvement in sleep with cannabis. Another found a lessening of bad dreams. That’s a pretty large number of people that feel that cannabis did actually improve their sleep.
MJ does put you to sleep faster and it makes you feel that you are sleeping well. This is potentially a user-bias but perhaps, it’s not a bad bias to have if you do have insomnia and believe that weed helps you sleep better. The researchers found that although there is a self-reported positive impact of cannabis on sleep, there is also a decrease in an important stage of sleep, REM sleep. REM sleep is an important stage for memory consolidation and learning. In any case, it’s a hot topic with much to be explored as more states legalize recreational use.
Improve your sleep hygiene
- Wearing warm socks to bed may help you fall asleep faster. Heating your feet causes vasodilation which tells the brain that it’s time to go to bed.
- Put an eyemask which prevents the streetlights from keeping you awake.
- Download a bluelight filter app on your phone or computer or use blue light blocking glasses.
- Tinder not working out for you? Sleep with a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets imitate the comfort of sleeping next to another person which relieves stress and improves sleep. Weighted blankets have calming abilities which stem from the concept of deep pressure stimulation.
- Learn more about sleep health and hygiene.
- Bhanu, P et al. Medical Cannabis for Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Premature and Potentially Harmful. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2018; 93(6): 689-692
- Bolla, K et al. Polysomnogram changes in marijuana users who report sleep disturbances during prior abstinence. Sleep Medicine. 2010; 11(9): 882-889
- Boyce, R., Williams, S., and Adamantidis, A. REM sleep and memory. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 2017; 44: 167-177
- Gates, P., Albertella, L., and Copeland, J. The effects of cannabinoid administration on sleep: a systematic review of human studies. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2014; 18(6): 477-487
- Schierenbeck, T et al. Effect of illicit recreational drugs upon sleep: Cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana. 2008; 12(5): 381-389