Cannabis and Sleep: An Individual Journey
Author: Samantha M., Pe Marketing Lead
Whether a cannabis consumer identifies their primary use as “medical” or “recreational”, they’re likely to have one common trait - using cannabis to support healthy sleep. A vast majority of cannabis enthusiasts have reported using cannabis to either help them get to sleep faster, stay asleep throughout the night, or a combination of the two. A major medical cannabis breakthrough of the last decade is the use of cannabis to treat the sleep-disturbing symptoms of PTSD, including night terrors and periods of intense wakefulness. Even other medicinal cannabis uses, like the potential reduction in pain, anxiety, and nausea, can help to indirectly improve the quality of sleep by eliminating other symptoms that interfere with your ability to sleep. If you’ve long suffered from chronic insomnia or you’re going through a temporary bought of stress-related sleep disturbances, cannabis may be a natural way to re-set your sleep cycle and find the nighttime relief you so desperately need.
However, like all whole-plant medicines, cannabis is incredibly versatile and can contain a vast array of different chemical compounds. As such, not all cannabis types and products will prove to be good sleep medicine, and not everyone's body chemistry will interact with the compounds in cannabis in a way that induces healthy sleep. Some people may even have exact opposite effects due to their unique body chemistry. For this reason, it’s important to consider the entire picture before we can universally call cannabis an effective sleep medicine. In this article, we’ll take a look at the hard science being done to elucidate the connections between cannabis compounds and the human sleep cycle, including the good news for sleep sufferers, the pitfalls to avoid when choosing your potential cannabis medicine, and why cannabis isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the complex problem of modern human sleep.
Considerations before using Cannabis for Sleep: Dose, Terpenes, and More
Though the nuanced effects of cannabis can vary based on the strain and producing farm, the effects of cannabis products are most commonly on the sedative side. There has been some recent scientific evidence to support long-standing anecdotal reports that cannabis is an effective sleep aid. A 2019 study found that those with sleep problems typically report that cannabis helps them fall asleep sooner and stay asleep through the night - this study also suggests that using cannabis as a sleep medicine reduces the likelihood that a consumer will develop problems like unhealthy cannabis dependency.
The scientific journal Sleep Medicine Reviews reports that both smoked and edible cannabis use has been observed to reduce REM sleep while facilitating falling asleep, meaning a potential reduction in nightmares, as dreams only occur during REM sleep. This effect can be incredibly helpful for those struggling with persistent night terrors, overactive dreams that leave you feeling unrested on waking, or the horrible effects of PTSD on the sleep cycle.
As with the opioid crisis, there’s some evidence that cannabis use may help reduce dependency on other drugs used to regulate the sleep cycle. A 2017 study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology demonstrated that medical cannabis patients were able to significantly reduce their use of sleep aid drugs when using medical cannabis. In addition, the same holds true for pain and anxiety medications as well - two incredibly common symptoms that frequently disturb sleep cycles, especially when they acutely flare up. With these potential benefits, it makes sense that a large percentage of the population looks to cannabis for help getting some shut-eye.
We’ll cover several compounds in cannabis that may contribute to its sedative effects and sleep-supporting abilities, but the chief among them is also the star molecule of cannabis - Delta-9-THC, or just THC to the layman. In most cases, a moderate to high THC dose usually induces sedative effects and a higher likelihood that a consumer will find it easy to get to sleep . A recent study determined that higher THC dose, taken close to bedtime, was related to better sleep quality and less drowsiness the following day. Sedative effects have been noted from THC doses as low as 10-15mg as well, so it may not be necessary to ingest a large dose to get the type of effects you need to get to sleep. Experiment with different THC doses to find the option that works best for your needs.
However, it’s incredibly important to note that not everyone has the same reaction to THC - for a smaller percentage of the population, THC can be very stimulating and make it hard or near-impossible to fall asleep. If you’ve consistently felt very stimulated and energized, or experienced anxiety or jitters after several modes of cannabis consumption, it’s possible that you’re part of the population that experiences stimulating effects from THC at any dose, and cannabis may in fact not be the best sleep supporting choice for your body in that case. This is why taking note of your individual responses to cannabis experimentation are so vital for success!
In addition to THC, the terpenes in cannabis can be very conducive to healthy sleep as well. If you’re not familiar with terpenes, they are the essential oil components found in nearly all plants which give them their scent and contribute to flavor. These molecules also act as part of the plant’s defense system, imparting these small-but-mighty compounds with effects and benefits that humans can tap into and tailor to their need through cannabis medicine. It’s believed that terpenes are the primary compounds responsible for the nuanced effects you experience from different cannabis products - if THC and CBD are the engine driving your car, terpenes are the steering wheel. Most terpenes have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and insect-repellant properties - many others also have tumor-fighting abilities, impacts on our respiration and blood flow, and can fight oxidizing free radicals that damage our tissues. Some even help stop seizures, clear out heart disease, and quiet the symptoms of neurological disorders like MS. However, one of the most common uses of terpenes is for calming relaxation through aromatherapy - oils like lavender and chamomile are frequently touted for their anxiety-busting abilities and the sense of overall calm that they induce, which can make falling asleep much easier. Some of the specific terpenes in these oils that give them their sleep-inducing qualities just so happen to be abundant in cannabis!
Two of the most commonly found cannabis terpenes across strains, Myrcene and B-Caryophyllene, are known for their heavily sedating, anxiety-reducing effects. Myrcene, a musky-smelling chemical also found in mangoes, is believed to be the primary culprit behind cannabis’s “couch-lock” effects. B-Caryophyllene, a spicy terpene found abundantly in black peppercorns, can quickly reduce anxiety and induce feelings of body sedation. We already mentioned the calming effects of lavender, which draw primarily from a high percentage of Linalool, one of the other most common terpenes in cannabis strains with sweet floral scents. Lesser terpenes like Terpineol, Humulene, and Geraniol have also been found to promote feelings of relaxation and preparedness for sleep even at lower concentrations, and may contribute to the sleep-supporting properties of cannabis products that contain them.
Aside from the chemical compounds driving cannabis’s effects, just the act of ingesting cannabis can lend itself to bedtime preparation. Your bedtime ritual can help set your intention for restorative sleep and quiet the mind for your relaxation. If you incorporate cannabis consumption into this ritual (as the earlier-cited study suggests that this is the best time to consume cannabis for sleep support), simply taking the time to do this bit of self-care - packing yourself a bowl or dosing your edible out as needed in quiet solitude - can help prepare your mind to drift off to sleep.
Potential Pitfalls of Using Cannabis for Sleep Support
Although there are some promising aspects to using cannabis as a sleep-supporting medicine, the science is not as cut-and-dried as we would like to believe. As we touched on earlier, everybody responds to THC and other cannabis compounds differently, so it’s highly unlikely that a medical application will be effective 100% of the time - this biological diversity is common to all drugs on earth, and is not a unique downfall of cannabis, but it is an important factor to keep in mind when considering any plant medicine. So let’s examine some of the potential downsides to trying cannabis for sleep.
With all this talk of THC and terpenes, you may be wondering where the recent wunderkind of CBD fits in to the equation. Unfortunately, while CBD is extremely effective for managing the symptoms of a wide array of illnesses, it does not seem that sleep is one of them. Lab studies have found that CBD reduces REM sleep like THC, but in so doing, it also induces alertness and wakefulness, especially when used with THC. This means that not only does CBD not promote sleep, it actually inhibits THC’s ability to induce sleep as well by causing THC to disassociate from the cannabinoid receptors. A study examining the possible sleep cycle modulation of THC and CBD found that CBD induces wakefulness even when co-administered with the brain’s natural anandamide, a molecule very similar to THC in structure and effects that is powerfully sleep-inducing.
Additionally, THC use is not always a perfect sleep quality guarantee. Though higher THC doses have been suggested to reduce feelings of drowsiness the following day in lab settings, there is still the potential for next day fatigue when using cannabis as a medicine for sleep. If you experience this effect, consider a dose adjustment, or try to use a CBD-rich product the next morning to increase your alertness and wakefulness. You could also incorporate some uplifting terpenes like Limonene and a-Pinene to help oxygenate your blood and increase respiration - more oxygen-rich blood flow to your brain will help you to feel more active and focused, and the mood elevation these terpenes typically provide can take the edge off of any lingering fatigue.
Another potential area of concern is the observation that daily users are more likely to report long-term insomnia, leading some to wonder if heavy, long-term use of cannabis could potentially dysregulate the sleep cycle further, inadvertently worsening sleep issues down the line. It’s not yet clear if these studies show a simple correlation or a direct causation among these factors, as surveys suggest that those with existing insomnia are more likely to try cannabis for relief to begin with - however, it is important to consider all potential negative side effects of any medication, so this area will require further study and vigilance by consumers to avoid. If you do notice an increase in sleep disturbances during heavy consumption periods, consider tolerance breaks to help re-set your internal cycles and see if your sleep improves.
It’s also very common for sleep disturbances to occur during cannabis withdrawal, when formerly heavy or regular consumers quit cold-turkey and experience acute insomnia and trouble falling asleep. While these effects should be temporary and sleep cycles should level back out to baseline once the withdrawal period is over, it can still be quite a negative experience to live through in the moment. If you plan to cease your cannabis consumption altogether, you should be aware of this potential effect and do your best to plan accordingly for the experience so that you are able to get through daily activities without undue fatigue.
Most importantly, no sleep medication is recommended for chronic long-term use, and full dependence on any substance to regulate your sleep cycle is a recipe for disaster, so ensure that you are incorporating natural methods to improve your sleep quality as well - set and keep a regular bed time to train your brain to a consistent sleep schedule that will encourage you to fall asleep faster and get more restorative sleep. Try to reduce your screen time in the hours leading up to your bedtime, as blue light from artificial screens can disrupt our natural Circadian rhythm. Establish a nighttime “ritual” that will help to avoid frantic behavior and reduce your anxiety before bed, as well as setting your intention to sleep in your actions. Maintain healthy water intake, good dietary choices, and physical activity during the day so that your body has the building blocks it needs to repair itself as you sleep. All of these things, used in conjunction with mindful cannabis consumption if it’s right for you, can set you up for sleep success and better overall wellness during the day.
Best Cannabis Products for Supporting Healthy Sleep
So now that we have a basic understanding of the science behind the somewhat hit-or-miss application of cannabis medicine for sleep support, if you decide to try using cannabis in this way, what are the best types of cannabis products to try for this use case?
Obviously, this will require a good deal of personal experimentation to determine what works best for your unique body chemistry - we highly recommend keeping a detailed notebook of the effects you experience, impact on your sleep quality, and all the important compounds and doses taken in that product to help narrow your ideal product features.
Some important things to consider when picking a cannabis product for sleep include onset and duration, terpenes profile, and ease of dosing. Let’s expand on how each of these factors relates to the application of sleep.
Onset of effects refers to how quickly you begin to feel the first effects after consumption, and duration is how long the effects last. For sleep support, your onset and duration needs may change based on the type of sleep problem you’re experiencing. For example, you will likely want something that takes effect relatively quickly if you plan to take it near bedtime to get to sleep faster - consider smoking, vaporizing, or sublingual consumption of tinctures in these cases. If you’re looking to stay asleep throughout the night, edibles may be a better choice thanks to their long curve of effects over several hours. If you need both at once, consider an edible that can be consumed both sublingually and orally at once to give you quicker effects onset without sacrificing too much on duration - think chocolate that melts in your mouth as you chew and swallow, a hard candy you can suck on for a while before chewing up and eating it, or a soft caramel like the one we produce for Oregon residents that can be savored under the tongue before chewing.
Terpene profile will be very important for sleep support, as the terpenes impact the nuanced effects you experience. Look for products with the calming terpenes we highlighted above, and take note of the effects you personally experience - like THC, some people respond to terpenes in exact opposite fashion from the majority, so Myrcene or Linalool may actually make you feel stimulated in practice. Try different terpenes in your products and find the one or few that consistently give you calming, near-sleepy feelings so that you can specifically pick products with higher percentages of those terpenes when it’s time for bed.
Ease of dosing will also play into product choice, as THC’s effects are very dose dependent - it may be that a low dose is sedating to you, but higher doses are very energizing and make it hard for you to sleep. Look for a product that you personally find easy to dose into your preferred THC dose - whether that’s a tincture dropper that you can repeat as needed, a small dose of an edible product, or a puff or two from a vaporizer or joint. Experiment with different dose levels and take careful note of how you feel the next day - do you feel well rested, or do you have lingering fatigue? You can also ask your budtender for strains or products that have consistently made them and/or their co-workers feel sedated and ready for bed. Avoid falling into the Sativa vs Indica false dichotomy here, as not all Indicas are good for sleep, just as all Sativas aren’t guaranteed to uplift you since those terms do not relate to effects. Follow your nose and notebook first!
We hope that these insights on the current studies and anecdotal reports of using cannabis for sleep health have informed your choices and empowered you to take steps to improve your wellness. If you’re interested in learning more about how cannabis works together with our bodies to support our health in many ways, check out our write-up on the Human Endocannabinoid System. If you’re nervous about experimenting with cannabis for the first time, especially edibles, read our blog post on preventing and combatting the negative side effects of THC overconsumption.
*DISCLAIMER: These opinion pieces are personal experiences of the individual authors, and are not medical recommendations, medical claims, or usage recommendations from the company. Our products are not approved by the FDA to treat, cure or prevent any diseases. Periodic edibles supports responsible cannabis use in accordance with all local laws.