by Elana Cydney Vollen
It’s something completely essential to human life; something we, in fact, require on a daily basis. It’s a huge component of having a healthy immune system and can completely govern our moods. Yet, 30-40% of adults in the U.S. struggle with some form of sleep disorder or insomnia at some point during their lives and 10-15% deal with chronic insomnia according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Have you crunched the numbers on that?? It is a HUGE problem of epidemic proportions. So, when you are up fretting in the wee hours of the night, at least you know that you are not alone!
What can the use of cannabis offer to this cultural dilemma?
According to Brightfield Group analyst Bethany Gomez, 31% of older adults (age 45+) who use cannabis are using it to address insomnia-related issues, making it the fourth-most common medical condition this demographic treats with cannabis.
Cannabis, long associated with its sedative and relaxing effects, has been used throughout modern and ancient history as an aid for sleeping in many different global cultures.
A study from 2005 conducted by By Rolando Tringale, MD and Claudia Jensen, MD which collected data from 166 human subjects found that there was a significant decrease reported in the time it took to fall asleep after the use of cannabis in both those with and those without reported sleep difficulties.
Among people with active difficulty falling asleep, cannabis use resulted in an average of 30 minutes less time in falling asleep. The study also included a group of people who were able to fall asleep without difficulty. Among this group of strong sleepers, cannabis helped them fall asleep even faster, by 15 minutes.
This research aligns with other studies that show THC-rich cannabis use reduces the time it takes to fall asleep, and lengthens time spent in deep, slow wave sleep.
What are the elements in cannabis that help contribute to deeper, easier sleeping?
Different cannabinoids (the more than 100 naturally-occurring individual chemical compounds found in cannabis) have different properties. THC, which is the cannabinoid most responsible for the psychoactive properties of cannabis, can contribute to deep relaxation states in both the body and the mind, although its effects are not uniform and different people react differently to its onset.
Individual cannabis strains differ in their characteristics and genetics. Mostly what you find are strains that are either in the Indica group or the Sativa group or a hybrid of the two. Generally speaking, Indica strains are thought to display more of the characteristics that contribute to the ‘body high’ of THC and their associated sedative properties. Strong Indicas are sometimes described as giving one ‘couch-lock’ (i.e. so strong that you can’t get off the couch).
Some of that also has to do with the terpene profile of the particular cannabis strain. Terpenes are a different set of chemical oil compounds in the cannabis flowers which give them their particular aroma and taste and these chemicals have their own set of effects (the concept behind ‘essential oil therapy’). Further down in this article is a short primer on some of the terpenes that help facilitate relaxing effects.
Other cannabinoids that might contribute to relaxation are CBD, which can promote relaxation and may reduce anxiety but without the sedative effects, and CBN, which is getting a lot of attention lately.
CBN is actually what THC converts due over time due to oxidation (i.e. when your pot gets old) and may prove to have some powerful sedative properties, though this has not been sufficiently studied in the scientific environment thus remains inconclusive.
Terpenes as they pertain to sleep and relaxation**:
Myrcene Commonly occurring in cannabis, this terpene is also found in a lot of fruits and herbs, including mangoes, basil, thyme, and lemongrass, as well as in the sleep-promoting plants hops and ylang ylang. Myrcene has been shown to have sedative effects. It also functions as an anti-inflammatory.
Caryophyllene This is a stress, anxiety and pain-relieving terpene that may also promote sleep, thanks to these relaxing, anxiolytic and analgesic properties. This terpene has a peppery, spicy scent, and is also found in cloves and black pepper.
Limonene This citrus-flavored terpene, which is found in citrus peels as well as in cannabis and other plants, has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, according to research. Limonene may also have anti-depressant effects. And research shows it may reduce OCD behaviors. Scientists think its calming, mood-lifting effects come from limonene’s ability to elevate serotonin levels in the brain. That may also make this terpene a sleep-promoter. Studies have shown that limonene may help reduce insomnia symptoms.
Terpineol This terpene has relaxing, pain-relieving, and sedative effects. In addition to being found in some strains of cannabis, terpineol is also found in lilac, pine, and eucalyptus.
Linalool This lavender-scented terpene is found in hundreds of plants, including cannabis. You probably know about the benefits of lavender for sleep, which I wrote about here. Studies show linalool lowers anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as help guard the immune system against damage from stress. Particularly important for sleep: linalool increases adenosine, a sedating hormone that helps us fall asleep.
** Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM;
Cannabis Vs. Pharmaceuticals
One of the other notable benefits of turning to cannabis versus pharmaceutical sleep aids such as ‘benzos’ like Xanax and Valium is that it won’t induce the physical dependence and subsequent withdrawal symptoms that these can, nor the unwanted potential side effects of depression or even psychosis. Even ‘milder’ pharmaceuticals like the hypnotics Ambien and Lunesta can cause complex, unpleasant sleep-related behaviors, as well as create a cycle of dependency.
Cannabis is by no means a perfect solution and I do not wish to paint that picture. It is less than ideal to have to depend on any substance to help you sleep because any substance can create dependence, however it is certainly the lesser of many evils.
THC and sleep cycles
Like I mentioned earlier in the article, THC lengthens time spent in deep, slow wave sleep but at the expense of REM sleep, which is limited with THC present. According to a 2008 study*** ingesting marijuana strains with higher levels of THC 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.
A part of the theory of THC use to help with sleep 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.
While deep sleep does allow for nervous system restoration, tissue repair and other processes that strengthen the body’s natural immunity, REM sleep also has its role, otherwise it would not exist in the sleep cycle; thus limiting REM is not an ideal outcome for the long term, since this puts the time spent in the different stages of sleep out of balance.
Dosage and Timing
If you do choose to ingest THC-rich cannabis to help either with accelerating the onset of sleep and/or the ability to stay asleep for longer uninterrupted periods, then timing of ingestion can be an important factor.
As far as ingesting edibles, gummies, tinctures or anything that goes through the digestive system, there is a delayed onset of approximately one hour before THC effects will be felt (this varies by individual depending on tolerance, metabolism, weight, and other factors but is a general timeline). An advantage to ingestion of this nature is the effects are also longer-acting in the body (usually 4-6 hours).
Dosage will also vary greatly amongst individuals, but generally speaking 2-5mg. Of THC is still considered a light dose but a strong enough dose to help induce both the mental and physical effects that may help with sleep. It is always advisable to start with less and build slowly from there.
If the sleep issue you are most dealing with is not actually getting to sleep but staying asleep, this is optimal because you can time your ingestion of these products so that the THC effects will not ‘land’ until after you have fallen asleep; this is useful because sometimes the initial THC effects can actually be stimulating due to their psychoactivity.
If it’s the act of getting to sleep that is a challenge and you are okay with the psychoactive effects of THC, then you might want to ingest earlier than an hour prior to bedtime and let the initial wave of psychoactive effects pass before the later phase of sedation kicks in.
If you are ingesting via combustion (smoking) or vaporizing, effects will onset almost immediately so you can adjust your timing for that as well. If you are utilizing the above methods, I would recommend doing them about an hour before bedtime as well so that you are through the initial wave of psychoactive effects and allow time for the ‘body high’ to kick in, which will help you to find sleep more easily.
If you should wake up in the middle of the night and want to ‘re-dose’ to get you back down, be aware that edibles will kick in with a great delay and also it is not recommended to ‘re-dose’ within four hours of when you need to wake up as you might find yourself feeling groggy.
General recommendations for experiencing an ample and restful sleep include:
- Limiting your caffeine use to the morning hours only
- Practicing good ‘sleep hygiene’, such as turning off any type of screen that emits blue light (most screens do) at least an hour before bedtime
- Creating a dark, quiet environment for yourself while attempting sleep (which might include the use of earplugs and an eyemask depending on your living/sleeping conditions)
- Exposing yourself to bright, natural light during the day which will help support your natural circadian rhythms
- Avoiding alcoholic drinks at night (alcohol is known to cause or increase the symptoms of sleep apnea, snoring and disrupted sleep patterns as it can reduce nighttime melatonin production
- Trying to sleep and wake at Consistent Times
- Consider augmenting with other natural supplements such as Melatonin, L-theanine (an amino acid), Valerian root, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, or other herbal supplements known to aid with sleep
- Avoiding the consumption of large meals within an hour before bed
- Exercising regularly each day
If you are interested in exploring how cannabis might help you with sleep, please check out our featured sale products this month at the top of the newsletter which are all recommended Indica products to help with sleep.
May you all get some deep rest this holiday season in whatever way works for you!
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