Cannabis for Sleep: How It Affects Insomnia

Sleep disorders affect up to 40% of Canadians, and 30% of Americans, so it’s no wonder that insomnia is among the top two reasons for medical cannabis prescriptions in legal countries. The other top reason? Pain, which, in many cases, also leads to sleeplessness. And sleeplessness doesn’t only affect your energy, but also your memory, weight, creativity, heart and stress levels.

Getting your Zzz’s interrupted can have devastating consequences for your quality of life. So, while medical patients come to cannabis from all sorts of struggles and afflictions — from anxiety to depression, to immune and gastrointestinal disorders — cannabis has been used as a sleep aid for millennia due to its’ calming properties.

Biologically, it’s been found that the human body’s CB1 receptors are involved in sleep regulation. Studies from as early as the 1970s showed that THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) affects the CB1 receptors and can in some cases cause an increase in deep sleep and a decrease in REM sleep, which ultimately changes and adjusts the way our bodies rest. Whether that adjustment is necessary for you, only you and your doctor should decide.

So, will cannabis help you sleep?

As with many topics in the burgeoning field of cannabis research, it depends. Based on years of patient feedback on different strains, it’s known that cannabis has an uncanny ability to relieve stress and help you physically relax. For those suffering with chronic pain, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, PTSD, and other sleepless conditions, studies have proven that cannabis can help.

Cannabinoids like CBD and THC affect many of the body’s physiological systems via the endocannabinoid system (ECS), including aspects of sleep like the length of REM cycles, speed of falling asleep, and also supporting pain relief which aids in sleep.

While CBD (cannabidiol) is an incredible, non-high-inducing answer for many other health issues, it appears that it’s actually THC which is responsible for creating a drowsy effect in patients. Why? As mentioned above, THC acts on your CB1 receptors, which are responsible for sleep regulation and pain relief and are crucial in helping you battle your way to bed.

How does cannabis affect your sleep?

Sleep is a crucial system for helping you relax, reset, and rest — and affects pretty much every other function we rely on in our day to day lives. When that system is skewed — whether you struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting deep, restful sleep — everything else tends to go haywire.

For example, difficulty getting to sleep due to chronic pain issues, or struggles with feeling rested due to PTSD nightmares are different issues, and studies suggest that unique approaches are required for every situation.

Some (limited) studies over the years have discovered that strains heavy in CBD don’t have much of an effect on sleep by themselves. THC-heavy strains are the most effective in helping you fall and stay asleep, but have also been rumoured to reduce the amount of REM sleep you get. This, in turn, reduces the amount of time you spend dreaming (while helping you spend more time in deep sleep).

Some scientists suggest that short-acting cannabinoids may initiate sleep better while longer-acting cannabinoids may be better at maintaining sleep — so a solid balance of THC:CBD is often the best option to both get to and stay asleep.

Cannabis and REM sleep

At it’s simplest, the human sleep cycle consists of cycles including light, medium, deep, and REM sleep, which we cycle through during the night. All parts of our sleep cycles focus on resting and resetting different parts of our bodies and helping to regulate different bodily and brain functions.

Light sleep helps do a lot of bodily maintenance for your metabolism, and we spend more than 50 percent of our sleep time in light sleep: where we’re not completely turned off. Deep sleep, (or non-REM sleep), is all about resetting the body: repairing and rebuilding your muscles, growing tissues and bones, and strengthening your immune system.

REM sleep helps us regulate emotions, process memories, and “clear” the short-term memories: it resets the brain and this is when we usually have intense dreams. We spend less and less time in REM sleep and in deep sleep as we age, though we continue to need their healing and regenerative properties.

Several studies have proven that taking THC-heavy strains of cannabis reduce REM sleep. For PTSD sufferers, this might be a good thing because it reduces their capability to dream and have nightmares. For the rest of us? Not ideal.

Getting less REM sleep can cause some emotional unbalance and difficulty in creating memories (never mind that many struggle with the lack of dreams). That being said, those with sleep and mood disorders often spend too much time in REM (and too little in deep sleep), so cannabis is beneficial in regulating those cycles.

For people with other sleep disorders, including insomnia and nightmares, cannabis helps lengthen the amount of time you sleep, lighten the nightmares, and help you go back to sleep if you wake up because you’re more relaxed. It all depends on how slow you go with your experimentation.

Indica or sativa for sleep?

As we’ve previously mentioned on our blog, indica and sativa are two variations of the cannabis plant that have different origins and effects.

Indica is still considered to be more sedating and relaxing due to its higher concentrations of THC, while sativas are seen as more daytime strains due to their energizing and uplifting effects with CBD.

Of course, hybrids make this more complicated but also better for the consumer, because you can pinpoint the exact feelings and relief you’d like after some experimentation.

Explore In-Depth: CBD vs. THC

Most cannabis industry professionals will recommend an indica strain for sleeping problems, but it’s possible to “overdose” on THC and wake up feeling groggy and almost hungover. Doctors recommend strains with less than 20 percent THC.

Some theorize that the reason THC is more beneficial as a sleep aid is due to terpene characteristics in indica strains. The terpenes “aromatic fingerprint” change the expression of each strain by emphasizing certain characteristics, whether antibacterial, relaxing, uplifting or otherwise. To learn more about how terpenes affect cannabis strains, read our article.

Which cannabis helps you sleep?

2015 review of recent cannabis research found that the best strains were those with equal parts THC:CBD because they balanced out restful sleep without causing and memory issues. Strains with stronger concentrations of THC caused some light memory issues in the morning (but also increased deep sleep), while strains with CBD alone increased wakefulness.

Best cannabis for sleep without getting high

Some people need support sleeping because pain keeps them awake, while others just have difficulty sleeping, period. Depending on what you’re struggling with, you can experiment with the THC:CBD balance in your strains, as well as methods of consumption. Getting “high” doesn’t have to be part of the equation.

In our article on cannabis oil versus dried cannabis, we talked about how cannabis oils are absorbed quicker and more intensely into your body than smoking, and edibles take longer to act than vaping or smoking, but provide longer-term relief. Some patients find that a blend of oil and edible provides them with the capacity to fall and stay asleep, while others prefer a pull on their vape to get their Zzz’s.

If your struggle with sleeplessness is a byproduct of pain, you’ll be happy to know that a 2004 study on chronic pain found that THC-dominant and balanced THC:CBD reduced the feelings of pain and increase the perceived quality of sleep (but had less effect on the length of sleep). Other studies exploring pain and sleep interactions in conditions like multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis also confirmed that an equal THC:CBD strain reduces insomnia, daytime fatigue, and increases sleep quality in both types of patients.

Cannabis withdrawal sleep problems

If you stop using cannabis as a long-time user, you might experience “REM rebound”, which is a period during which your dreams get more intense, your sleep quality gets worse, and you experience more disruptions in your sleep. Some experienced users also claim that not only do the dreams come back full force, but they can be rather unpleasant at the start, causing night sweats.

It’s unknown whether your sleep will “level out” again after stopping long-time cannabis use, and more studies need to be done on the subject.

Which delivery method is best?

Firstly, ask yourself how you usually prefer to consume cannabis. Note your response times to different methods and strains, and consider the particular struggles you have around sleep. Secondly, realize that there’s no best overall method — just the best method for you.

As a reminder,

  • Dried cannabis can be vaped or turned into edibles via butters and oils. The effects are felt quickly, and microdosing is recommended when experimenting for sleep. Just one or two small puffs until you see how it affects your ability to fall asleep, and preferably during the weekend so you don’t wake up groggy if you overdid it.
  • Oils are placed under the tongue or turned into edibles. Their effect is stronger and more immediate than vaping as it goes straight into your bloodstream (if you place it under your tongue), bypassing the lung-liver-bloodstream highway. Because the effects are strong and lengthy, smaller doses are recommended at the beginning.
  • Edibles are recommended by some medical practitioners and ignored by others because of the difficulty with dosing. If you’ve found a consistent, high-quality strain in an edible that you know exactly how you respond to, that’s the best way to use edibles for your sleeplessness. Especially if your main issue is staying asleep, as they’re longer lasting than all the other methods.

While some strains can make you feel “high”, whether that’s slower time, enhanced sensations, or heightened feelings of euphoria, others simply relax you. Finding the right one for you will take time and a dose of curiosity.

Whatever method you choose, try it at least one hour before bedtime to give your body a chance to adjust to sensations and limit the amount of excitement you feel.

How to dose cannabis at night time as a sleep aid

The best method for dosing when you’re starting is to start low and go slow. Remember that

  • Inhalation via vaping or smoking is very quick in and quick out and the effects last about 2-3 hours. You can add on to the feeling quickly by taking another pull from your vape, and it’s easier to control overall, but the effects don’t last the entire night. If you wake up, you can always take another dose to get back to sleep.
  • Absorption via cannabis oils under your tongue is very quick and remains in your system for longer than inhalation, but shorter than ingestion. This is the middle ground between the two popular methods.
  • Ingestion via eating cannabis oils in your salad dressing, teas, or in other edibles is slow-acting and slow to leave your body, which can be ideal for those who have trouble staying asleep.

Some patients have reported that older cannabis, or “decarbed” cannabis, makes it 5 times more mellow, sedating, and longer lasting. They report that their best sleep has come from older cannabis that has had time to degrade cannabinoids CBDA into CBD and THC into CBN. Patients can also bake their dried cannabis at particular temperatures to speed the process of creating more CBN (bake a THC-dominant strain at 320F for 90-120 minutes for best effects).

In studies comparing pharmaceutical sedatives and CBN, they’ve found that half the dose of CBN is worth a mild pharmaceutical in terms of sedation. The only difficulty will be finding and/or creating CBN.

Miscellaneous/other tips

  1. Pair sleepy-time strains with sleepy-time terpenes found in the rest of the world: lavender pillows and baths, chamomile or lemon teas. While more research on terpenes and the “entourage effect”is needed, it’s fair to say that encouraging sleep with other, more herbal, aids never hurts.
  2. If you wake up in the middle of the night after experimenting with dosing and methods, it’s ok to re-dose. However, if you wake up within 4 hours of your final wake-up time, it’s not recommended to dose again as the timing may cause grogginess.
  3. Whether you’re using cannabis for a form of insomnia or for chronic pain, know that cannabis’ various properties help stem both issues in different ways. They do this by limiting pain receptors, therefore making it easier to fall asleep without pain, and by relaxing the body and reducing anxiety to make it easier to sleep without worry.
  4. If you have time to “age” your cannabis, do so in a tightly sealed bag and a dry area. Older cannabis has more mellow cannabinoids that are better at promoting easy sleep.
  5. For help getting to sleep, try a vaporizer. For help staying asleep, try an oil or an edible. For other, more specific issues, visit your doctor, or a cannabis clinic if there’s one near you.