A gram for an ounce of sleep: what happens when smoking and sleeping

We’ve all been there: You’re in the mood for an uplifting, energetic strain, hopeful that the sativa (a misnomer since cannabis classifications are actually fake, but you already knew that from one of my previous columns right?) you picked out will get the job done for your night out. But 20 minutes and a joint later, you’ve realized the error of your ways — nothing, and I mean nothing, is enticing you quite like the couch cushions.

As ubiquitous as the munchies or anxiety attacks, cannabis-induced drowsiness is almost a guarantee. From specially tailored edibles touted to help combat insomnia to curated guides on the best strains for sleeping, a fair amount of the cannabis industry markets itself around the reality of weed fatigue. What’s lesser known is the science behind the tiredness, in addition to what happens during sleep when cannabis is involved.

Cannabis, particularly its psychoactive compound THC, has the profound effect of minimizing stress and tension, reducing pain and bringing about physical relaxation, thus decreasing sleep latency and increasing the depth of sleep. Additionally, given its common usage in providing relief for people with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression among other conditions that tend to interfere with sleep patterns, weed as a sleep aid makes sense.

Cognitively speaking, cannabis also greatly impacts the thought process, slowing down one’s ability to digest complex information, impairing focus and increasing the prevalence of distracting, trailing thoughts. Ever been asked by a sleep meditation guide to clear your mind? Weed literally does it for you.

At the same time, cannabis’ biphasic effects indicate that high quantities of the substance can actually trigger restlessness, particularly if anxiety and racing thoughts are the sources of a person’s sleeplessness. In this instance, THC-dominant strains may actually worsen sleep patterns despite their sedative qualities, meaning that people with anxiety could benefit from high-CBD strains, which predominantly treat stress and counteract THC’s negative side effects, namely anxiety.

Furthermore, high quantities of THC consumption were shown to produce more sleep disturbances, including lower total sleep times, worse sleep efficiency and longer sleep onset, according to a 2008 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. However, researchers conducting the study indicated they could not reach conclusive causation and had a small sample size, although their findings were biologically plausible.

Aside from the THC versus CBD dichotomy, using cannabis as a sleep aid requires consideration of many other factors. For example, the entourage effect, a yet unproven but plausible theory, suggests that myriad cannabis compounds — cannabinoids and terpenes — work together to produce a unique blend of effects dependent on their concentrations and the number of each in a given strain. Furthermore, natural sleep remedies, such as chamomile and lavender, can boost the substance’s effects, likely due to their shared terpenes, which are aromatic compounds found in the essential oils of various plants.

Additionally, edibles usually produce more intense and longer highs, as opposed to inhalants, due to the way they’re metabolized, meaning they could aid in prolonging and inducing sleep.

OK, now that we’ve established the link between weed and sleep, let’s follow Sharkboy’s advice in his iconic impromptu song in “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl” and dive into the dream landscape.

Dreams occur in the fourth stage of the sleep cycle, during rapid eye movement, which makes up to two hours of our sleep routine. A couple of studies have indicated that THC reduces time spent in REM, meaning that while under the influence, people will have less frequent or vivid dreams.

While CBD remains a more unexplored area of research relating to sleep, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics suggests the compound can improve REM sleep behavior disorders. A 2017 University of Pennsylvania review also proposes CBD dosage affects dreaming, with high doses increasing REM onset and lower ones decreasing it. While yet to be proven, anecdotal evidence shows that CBD consumers may experience more lucid, positive and enhanced dreams.

Although the jury is still out regarding the exact explanation for dreaming, research has established a link between REM sleep and emotional healing, the creative process, problem-solving skills and memory retention. REM sleep is also the only time during which noradrenaline, an anxiety-inducing neurotransmitter, is significantly reduced in the brain. As a result, dreaming is a fundamental aspect of the cognitive process and its deprivation can cause mood swings and skill impairments, particularly in developing brains. At the same time, there’s no clear consensus on the long-term implication of REM reduction, with some research indicating a lack of any effect.

So, given all the potential benefits of REM sleep, is cannabis’ effect on dreaming a bad thing? Not necessarily. As previously mentioned, cannabis as a sleep aid is particularly effective for people with PTSD and anxiety, whose conditions may include frequent nightmares that cause sleep disruption. In these instances, cannabis’ dream inhibiting properties can actually be helpful.

But something interesting happens with REM sleep once people discontinue cannabis consumption. Known as “REM rebound,” the phenomenon essentially makes up for the hours of dreaming lost to a mellow high. Rebounds are characterized by more frequent, lucid and vivid dreams. A 2019 study indicated that cannabis users reported “higher bizarreness” in their dreams following discontinued use, although researchers drew attention to the study’s small sample size. In accordance with this heightened absurdity, as well as the fact that suppressed REM sleep decreases the prevalence of nightmares, REM rebound can be frightening and disturbing, as people experience denser REM sleep, greater onset and elongated cycle times.

But for Dr. Timothy Roehrs, a sleep expert at the Henry Ford Health System, the link between REM sleep and cannabis is inconclusive, if not completely incorrect. According to The Cut, Roehrs conducted a study (as of yet unpublished) composed of larger sample sizes and placebo weed that seemed to indicate cannabis consumers had decreased sleep efficiency and depth on placebo nights as compared to the control group and when they smoked weed. As a result of missing out on restorative, deep sleep, cannabis […]

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