Buzzing off to sleep: Marijuana, insomnia and sleep apnea

June 1, 2019
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Americans are more stressed now than ever.  We often work long hours in high-pressure environments, then try to squeeze in personal obligations, chores, and daily living tasks in the remaining time.  No wonder so many people report having trouble falling asleep at night, staying asleep, or waking up feeling refreshed and energized.

But lots of us are leery of taking sleep aids, and with good reason.  Many “sleeping pills” have troublesome side effects, and can be addictive.  Because of this, cannabis is increasingly seen as a good choice.  Can cannabis really help you get to sleep?

The short answer is, yes, it seems so.  Anecdotally, people have been using cannabis as a sleep aid for centuries.  It is well known that the stain of cannabis called indica has a deep physically-relaxing effect.  In addition to relaxing the body, marijuana of any strain can also ease the mind, helping users to let go of worries and anxieties that often plague us at night.

Scientific research to corroborate the role of marijuana as a sleep aid is still in its infancy, thanks to marijuana’s classification as a Schedule One drug, which severely limits research opportunities.  However, one paper published in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports in April of 2017 seems to confirm that THC may decrease the amount of time it takes people to fall asleep.  Other studies also find similar results, that cannabis use reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, and lengthens the time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep.

For those who might be interested in using cannabis for sleep therapy but do not want the psychotropic effects, there is also evidence that CBDs, non-psychoactive compounds found in cannabis, may have the same positive effect on insomnia.

There is also research into whether marijuana can help with sleep apnea, a condition that causes the airways to close during the night and disrupt breathing. One study, conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern Medicine, and published in the journal SLEEP, found that a type of synthetic THC called dronabinol has some positive implications for using THC for sleep apnea, possibly by increasing airway muscle tone. However, there still has not been enough scientific testing to positively confirm these results.

Still, there is currently no other drug treatment for the disorder, which effects some 30 million people in the US and is linked to numerous health problems.  Untreated, sleep apnea increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes, and causes cognitive impairment.  It can also raise the risk of having a car accident, or indeed accidents of any sort, because of the chronic sleepiness it causes.  The only treatment currently available is a continuous positive airway pressure device, or CPAP, that is worn during sleep and forces air into the lungs to prevent breathing pauses. But it is cumbersome, often awkward or uncomfortable, and most people stop using it. 

Why is cannabis useful as a sleep aid?  It’s not just one factor.  Cannabis has many different natural chemicals that affect sleep.  Two of the most important are cannabinoids and terpenes.

Cannabinoids include CBD, CBN (or cannabinol), which seems to have powerful sedative effects, and THC.  THC, which is the main psychoactive element in marijuana, has been found to increase time spent in slow-wave sleep, the most restorative part of the sleep cycle.

Terpenes are tiny, aromatic molecules in cannabis that control the way it smells and “tastes.”  Each strain has a different combination of terpenes – there are more than 150 different ones that have been identified so far.  Studies show that terpenes have effects on energy, mood, sleepiness and alertness. Some of the most common terpenes identified as helpful to sleep are myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, terpineol, and linalool.  Myrcene has sedative effects and is also an anti-inflammatory.  Caryophyllene and terpineol relieve stress and pain.  So does limonene, which also elevates serotonin levels in the brain.  Linalool increases adenosine, a sedating hormone that helps bring on sleep.

In states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal, marijuana may be an effective, safe treatment for insomnia and sleep apnea.  Of course, you should have a conversation with your doctor first, just as you would before using any other sleep aid or supplement.

You don’t have put up with being tired all the time.  If marijuana is legal where you live, it may be that a toke or two is your safest ticket to dreamland.

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