Sleep is essential for maintaining our mental and physical health, yet it eludes many adults. According to the American Sleep Association, 50 to 70 million U.S. adults experience symptoms of a sleep disorder. About 30 percent of the population will experience insomnia at some point in their lives, and about 10 percent of adults will deal with chronic insomnia. So if getting shut-eye is getting harder and harder — well, you’re not alone.
With so many people experiencing sleeping disorders, there’s been a rise of interest in one controversial cure — cannabis. Many in the medical marijuana community refer to cannabis as an effective, little to no side effect treatment, for a range of sleeping disorders.
“Marijuana is an effective sleep aid because it restores a person’s natural sleep cycle, which so often falls out of sync with our schedules in today’s modern lifestyle,” says Dr. Matt Roman, a medical marijuana physician.
Whether you have a sleep disorder, or you’re having difficulty sleeping after a stressful day, cannabis could help you. Marijuana’s analgesic properties could provide some relief for those with chronic pain, while the anti-anxiety properties can soothe a stressed out mind and body.
First, here’s a quick primer on the science behind marijuana. This herb works because it contains different cannabinoids, two of which you’ll see most often:
- cannabidiol (CBD) — CBD has a number of health benefits, and is nonpsychoactive, meaning it doesn’t cause you to feel “high.”
- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) —THC, a psychoactive cannabinoid, is primarily responsible for that “high” feeling.
Something else THC is responsible for? Inducing sleep. So you’ll want a strain that contains more THC than CBD.
According to a 2008 study, ingesting marijuana strains with higher levels of THC in it typically reduces the amount of REM sleep you get. Reducing REM sleep means reducing dreams — and for those who experience PTSD, it could mean reducing nightmares.
So the theory is that if you spend less time dreaming, you’ll spend more time in a ‘deep sleep’ state. The ‘deep sleep’ state is thought to be the most restorative, restful part of the sleep cycle.
Still, REM is important for healthy cognitive and immune functioning, and marijuana with higher THC levels could impair your sleep quality if taken long term.
Choosing your strain
Think of choosing a strain like choosing a tea blend. You could go for straight white or black tea, or a hybrid. Different strains will also have different amounts of cannabinoids in them, but when it comes to getting sleep, both Dr. Matt Roman and Dr. Jordan Tishler recommend an indica strain to induce sleep.
Here are the three most common kinds of strains you’ll encounter:
- Indica: Indica strains are considered soothing and relaxing.
- Sativa: Sativa strains generally make people feel excited, happy, and energized.
- Hybrids: A combination of both indica and sativa, hybrids are blends that are often left up to the manufacturer or dispensary.
You can always talk to people at the dispensary to recommend a strain for you, or help you find what you’re looking for. Dr. Jordan Tishler, a Harvard-trained physician and Cannabis therapeutics specialist, recommends a strain with less than 20 percent THC. Anything more than that, he says, will make dosing difficult. Too much THC might make you feel groggy and sleepy the next morning.
How to use
Most people ingest marijuana by smoking it as a joint or with a pipe. But if you don’t enjoy smoking, want to protect your lungs, or if you dislike marijuana’s signature odor, try vaping devices or THC-rich tinctures, which are dropped under the tongue. Both are common methods of using marijuana for sleep.
Then comes the question of how much marijuana to use. It might take some experimentation to get the dosage that’s right for you — so don’t try this during a work week! If smoking or vaping, you’ll want to start with just a few puffs.
Dr. Tishler notes that a little goes a long way. As mentioned before, overdoing it can lead to grogginess the next morning. “If you need to re-dose in the middle of the night, that’s [ok] too,” Dr. Tishler says. “But you should avoid re-dosing if you awaken within four hours of when you need to be up.”
Take note of how you feel after you smoke. Feeling “high” can vary from feeling slight euphoria, to a slowed sense of time, to enhanced sensations such as cotton mouth.
When to use
Timing is important when it comes to using cannabis, especially for sleep. This is also why Dr. Tishler seldom recommends edibles, pointing out that, “They are unreliable about when they’ll kick in. Sometimes it’s about one hour, other times it can be more like two to three hours.”
It can also affect us for longer than intended and cause grogginess in the morning. “Because of the way cannabis is processed from our gut to our liver, the duration of action can be much longer, like 8 to 12 hours.”
While everyone’s physiology is different, it’s usually better to ingest the marijuana at least an hour before bedtime. According to Dr. Tishler, an hour before bedtime is ideal because the cannabis will work for about three to four hours, helping you to fall asleep.
“I recommend using marijuana more than two hours before bed,” Dr. Matt Roman suggests. “That way, people don’t feel the effects right as they are going to sleep, which can cause excitability and prevent sleep.”
Of course, not all sleep aids work for everyone the same way. Marijuana is no different. “People with recent heart attacks or poor cardiovascular health should refrain from cannabis use due to increased incidence of myocardial infarction,” warns Dr Roman.
Also, while cannabis is often used to reduce anxiety, some people find that high-THC strains make them more anxious or paranoid. If you’re one of these people, experiment with different strains or let your dispensary know when you’re choosing your strains. You might find that a different strain can induce sleep without heightening your anxiety.
More research on marijuana is coming and this herb (which is legal in some states and still illegal in others) has many different medicinal effects that may work as effectively as other medications, and with much fewer side effects. Using marijuana to help you sleep is a short-term fix, however. To sleep restfully, you’ll want to practice good sleep hygiene and incorporate other behaviors that support a lifestyle that promote good sleep.
Please use marijuana responsibly. As with all forms of smoking, your risk of COPD can increase. Smoking marijuana can be hazardous to the lungs, especially for those with asthma or other respiratory conditions. The use of marijuana while pregnant or breastfeeding isn’t recommended.
Long-term marijuana use has been shown to have changes on the amount of grey matter in the brain. For teenagers, marijuana seems to have even more profound long-term and lasting effects on the brain and isn’t recommended. More research on marijuana for medicinal purposes as well as the risk of COPD is still needed.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and journalist based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.