The science behind cannabis and sleep

You’re lying in bed, tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep. The minutes turn into hours, and frustration sets in as your mind races with thoughts of tomorrow’s responsibilities. It’s a scenario that many of us have experienced at some point in our lives. In search of a quick remedy, some people turn to sleep aids like alcohol and weed to help them drift off to sleep easier. However, what might seem like a solution in the short term can have detrimental effects on your sleep quality.

In today’s blog, we explore the science behind how cannabis affects your brain and what that means for your sleep.
sleeping on clouds illustration

Why does cannabis make you sleepy?

Sleep is a complex process regulated by various factors, including the endocannabinoid system (ECS). To understand the science behind how cannabis can influence sleep, we need to delve into the ECS and the role of its primary compounds, THC and CBD.

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

The ECS is a network of receptors, enzymes, and endocannabinoids found throughout the body, including the brain. It is crucial in maintaining homeostasis, regulating mood, pain perception, and sleep. The ECS receptors, known as CB1 (sleep-associated) and CB2 receptors, are key players in this process.

THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)

THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is known for its sedative effects. When consumed, THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, altering neurotransmitter release. This interaction can lead to drowsiness, which is why many choose cannabis as a sleeping aid.

CBD (Cannabidiol)

CBD, on the other hand, is non-psychoactive and may have a more nuanced impact on sleep. Research suggests that CBD is a non-competitive antagonist to CB1 (meaning it could interact with sleep) and could be associated with healthy sleep, but more evidence is needed in this area.

Sleeping dreaming of sheep

The effect cannabis has on your sleep

Now that we have an understanding of how cannabis influences sleep, are there any potential drawbacks to consider? First, we need to focus on one of the most important stages of our sleep cycle: REM sleep.

The sleep cycle and REM sleep

The sleep cycle consists of four main stages: Stage 1 and 2 are light sleep, and Stage 3 and 4 are deep sleep, collectively known as non-REM (NREM) sleep. These stages are important for physical restoration and growth. However, REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the fifth stage, is arguably the most crucial.

During REM sleep, brain activity resembles wakefulness, and this stage is associated with vivid dreams. It plays a vital role in memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and cognitive function. REM sleep is also essential for creativity and problem-solving.

The first REM sleep cycle usually occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep and lasts for a few minutes, gradually increasing in duration with each cycle. This is why many people remember multiple dreams during one night’s sleep.

What happens to your body if you don’t get enough REM sleep?

Not getting enough REM sleep can negatively affect your body and mind. Here are some of the potential consequences of insufficient REM sleep:

  • Memory and cognitive problems
  • Mood disturbances
  • Emotional instability.
  • Increased risk of physical health issues
  • Sleep disorders
  • Fatigue.
  • Reduced creativity
  • Reduced problem-solving abilities

    How THC can disrupt and reduce REM sleep

    While some people may experience disruptions in their sleep patterns, others might find that cannabis helps them fall asleep faster or stay asleep longer. But, what they may consider to be long and fulfilling sleep could be the polar opposite. THC has actually been shown to suppress REM sleep in some studies. This means the user doesn’t spend enough of the sleep cycle in the REM stage.

    So, while it may feel as though THC in cannabis is helping you fall asleep quicker, the quality of sleep and the amount of time spent in the REM period is reduced.

    In fact, when users give up weed, they experience something that is known as ‘REM Rebound’. This means that they increase REM sleep duration and intensity as the body attempts to make up for the REM sleep lost during cannabis use. REM rebound can lead to vivid, intense dreams.

    This goes to show how weed can suppress REM sleep, causing a plethora of different issues.

    The dangers of using weed as a sleep aid

    As mentioned in the introduction, many will turn to substances, such as weed, as a sleeping aid, but is this a healthy idea?

    The vicious cycle of dependency

    Vicious cycle of sleep dependency

    Initial use: Many people turn to marijuana to help with sleep issues, as it can have sedative effects and relax the body. Initially, it may provide relief from insomnia or other sleep disturbances.

    Tolerance development: Over time, the body can tolerate the active compounds in marijuana, such as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). This means that the same amount of marijuana may become less effective at promoting sleep, leading individuals to increase their dosage.

    Dependence: As tolerance develops, individuals may begin using marijuana more frequently or in higher doses to achieve the desired sleep-inducing effects. There may be a psychological Belief that sleep is impossible without marijuana, which could lead to fear or anxiety about sleep without it.

    Withdrawal symptoms: Marijuana addiction can result in withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit or cut down on use. These symptoms may include irritability, anxiety, insomnia, and changes in mood.

    Sleep disruption: Ironically, regular marijuana use can disrupt the natural sleep cycle. While it may help people fall asleep more easily, it can interfere with sleep quality and reduce the amount of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

    And the cycle begins again… Perhaps just a little weed to help me sleep through the withdrawals?

    Am I dependent on cannabis?

    If you’ve found yourself using cannabis as a sleeping aid and feel as though you may have an issue with dependency, it’s crucial to ask yourself the following questions;

  • Has the frequency of your cannabis use increased over time?
  • Do you experience strong cravings or urges to use cannabis, even when it may be inappropriate or harmful to do so?
  • Have you tried unsuccessfully to cut down or control your cannabis use, or do you find it difficult to stick to self-imposed limits?
  • Has your cannabis use led to neglect of important responsibilities at work, school, or home?
  • Have you experienced adverse consequences in your life as a result of your cannabis use, such as legal issues, relationship problems, or physical and mental health concerns?
  • Do you find it challenging to fall asleep without using cannabis as a sleep aid?
  • If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to even just one of these questions, it could indicate that you are showing a dependency on cannabis.

    What should I do next?

    If you’ve been relying on cannabis as a sleeping aid and you are experiencing cannabis dependency, know that there is help available.

    UKAT offers compassionate and specialised support to help you break free addiction and regain control of your life. Our dedicated team of experts understands the unique challenges you’re facing and is committed to guiding you on your path to recovery.

    Our team includes experienced medical and mental health professionals who can provide excellent advice on what to do next. Take that step toward recovery and contact Linwood House today.

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