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The Magic of Cannabinoids for Better Sleep

Person sleeping in dreamy cannabis harmony.

5 minute read


The connection between compounds like THC and CBD, found in cannabis, and how they help control sleep is becoming increasingly important. We need to know more about how they assist with sleep problems and their effects on the way we sleep.

Cannabis has been used for a long time to help with sleep, and now that it’s legal in many places, these compounds are receiving more attention for treating sleep issues.

Cannabinoids and the Sleep-Wake Cycle

Cannabinoids, which come from cannabis and are also produced by our bodies, are crucial in controlling sleep. They work through something called the type 1 cannabinoid receptor (CB1). This affects how neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, are released and impacts different aspects of sleep.

Endocannabinoid System (ECS) in Sleep Regulation

The ECS, consisting of lipid metabolites such as 2-AG and AEA, primarily operates through CB1 receptors (found mainly in the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nervous system, and some organs). The widespread presence of the ECS in the body significantly influences sleep regulation.

In practice, this means changes in the body’s endocannabinoid levels can affect how well or poorly someone sleeps, impacting sleep quality and patterns.

Effects of Acute and Chronic Cannabinoid Use

Acute use of cannabinoids (like THC):

When a person first or occasionally uses cannabinoids, it can affect their sleep patterns in several ways.

  • Reduced Sleep Latency: This means a person falls asleep faster. Sleep latency is the time elapsed from deciding to sleep to actually falling asleep.
  • Altered REM and Deep Sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the phase where dreams typically occur. Cannabinoids can reduce the proportion of REM sleep while increasing deep or slow-wave sleep, essential for physical recovery and regeneration.

Chronic use of cannabinoids:

If someone uses cannabinoids regularly and over a long period, tolerance can develop, meaning the body becomes accustomed to these substances and requires larger amounts for the same effect.

  • Sleep disorders related to withdrawal: When a person who has developed tolerance to cannabinoids stops or reduces their use, they may experience sleep difficulties. This is a sign of withdrawal symptoms, which can manifest as trouble falling asleep, reduced deep sleep, or increased REM sleep, leading to restless sleep and more frequent dreams or nightmares.

Understanding this dynamic between acute and chronic cannabinoid use is important for grasping potential therapeutic uses and risks associated with using cannabinoids for sleep regulation.

Unclear Role of CBD in Sleep Regulation

The impact of CBD (cannabidiol) on sleep is complex and not fully explored, causing some ambiguity about its role in sleep regulation.

Dual Effect of CBD:

  • Promoting Wakefulness: Some studies suggest that CBD may have wake-promoting effects, meaning it can help people stay awake or more focused in certain circumstances or dosages.
  • Improving Sleep: Conversely, other studies have shown that CBD may have beneficial effects on sleep, especially in individuals with sleep problems such as insomnia or stress-related or anxiety-related sleep disorders.

Combination with THC:

The effects of CBD on sleep can be different when used in combination with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). THC has more pronounced sedative effects, affecting sleep, while CBD can moderate some of THC’s effects, such as reducing anxiety or negative psychotropic effects.

Need for Further Research:

  • The varying effects of CBD on sleep and the interactions between CBD and THC underscore the need for more research. It’s crucial to better understand how different CBD doses, forms (e.g., isolates), and THC:CBD ratios affect different aspects of sleep in different individuals.
  • It’s also important to explore how various health conditions or states affect an individual’s response to CBD in the context of sleep.

Endocannabinoids and Circadian Rhythms

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is deeply involved in regulating circadian rhythms and the sleep-wake cycle.

What are circadian rhythms?

Circadian rhythms are natural, internal processes that regulate the sleep-wake cycle and repeat roughly every 24 hours. These rhythms are synchronized with light and dark cycles in the environment and affect many bodily processes, including sleep, digestion, hormonal activity, and body temperature.

ECS activity varies according to light and dark phases, meaning endocannabinoid levels can rise or fall depending on the time of day, helping to regulate sleep and wakefulness.

This variability is important for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm, crucial for quality sleep and overall well-being.

Therapeutic Potential in Various Sleep Disorders

Insomnia: This condition, where an individual has difficulty falling or staying asleep, can be alleviated by cannabinoids. They can improve sleep quality, reduce the time needed to fall asleep, and extend sleep duration, but their effects may vary depending on the individual and dosage.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): This neurological disorder causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an urge to move them, especially at night. Preliminary evidence suggests cannabinoids can reduce RLS symptoms, aiding in sleep improvement.

Sleep Apnea: This serious sleep disorder involves breathing interruptions during sleep. THC could affect serotonin pathways and thereby improve respiratory function, potentially beneficial in managing sleep apnea.

Nightmares associated with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder): PTSD often comes with traumatic nightmares. Cannabinoids like nabilone have shown potential in reducing the frequency and intensity of nightmares and improving overall sleep quality in PTSD patients.

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD): In this disorder, individuals physically respond to their dreams, which can be dangerous. CBD could help reduce these events and offer more peaceful sleep.

Narcolepsy: This chronic neurological disorder causes uncontrollable daytime sleepiness. The role of cannabinoids in treating narcolepsy is uncertain, as studies show varying effects depending on the type of cannabinoid and its use.

Safety Concerns

While cannabinoids may offer therapeutic benefits for some sleep disorders, there are also significant risks to consider. Two main concerns with cannabinoid use are memory impairment and cognitive abilities. This means prolonged or intense use of cannabinoids like THC can negatively impact an individual’s ability to remember information or process cognitive tasks.

Need for Further Research

As cannabinoids are used to treat sleep disorders, it’s crucial that research continues to improve our understanding of their long-term effects. This includes not only potential therapeutic benefits but also possible negative consequences like cognitive changes, dependency, and impacts on mental health. Understanding these factors is essential for developing safe and effective guidelines for cannabinoid use in medical purposes, especially in addressing sleep disorders. Further research will enable a more balanced approach to these substances, focusing on safety and efficacy.


APA Psycnet

Springer Link

Elsevier (opened in Sci-Hub)

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