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Marijuana and Sleep
TruthOnPot.com – It’s no secret that marijuana has a profound effect on sleep and many regular users develop a habit of smoking right before bedtime.
In addition to inducing drowsiness, nighttime cannabis users report a decrease in sleep onset latency – the amount of time it takes to fall asleep – and an increase in restfulness of the sleep itself. A lack of dreams is another common occurrence, which demonstrates marijuana’s unique effect on the different stages of sleep, such as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
As our scientific understanding of sleep continues to progress rapidly, so does our understanding of marijuana and sleep.
Cannabinoids – the main medicinal compounds found in cannabis – are known to mimic the action of endocannabinoids in a wide variety of physiological pathways including the modulation of the sleep/wake cycle. Indeed, studies seem to show that sleep is just another one of the many biological functions controlled – at least in part – by the body’s endocannabinoid system.
Stages of Sleep
To understand how marijuana affects one’s sleep, it is important to understand how sleep works.
Sleep is an active, naturally occurring state in which the brain cycles through various levels of activity. The two basic states of sleep are rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which consists of stages 1 through 3 (according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine). During sleep, the brain cycles between REM and NREM sleep, with dreams generally occurring during the REM state.
Stage 2 – A period of light sleep in which heart rate slows and body temperature drops. Lasts for approximately 20 minutes as the body prepares to enter deep sleep.
Stage 3 – Previously split into stages 3 and 4, this stage is known as deep sleep, delta sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS). Brain waves are very slow as blood flow is directed away from the brain and towards the muscles, restoring physical energy. Lasts for approximately 30 minutes and one may feel disoriented for a few minutes if aroused.
REM sleep – The longest stage of sleep in which most dreams occur. Characterized by eye-movement and increased breathing and heart rate. Vivid dreaming is experienced due to the heightened brain activity of this stage, but legs and arms are immobilized. The combination of brain wave excitement and muscular paralysis is why REM sleep is sometimes referred to as paradoxical sleep.
How Marijuana Affects Sleep
Over the years, numerous studies have been dedicated to investigating the effects that marijuana has on its user’s sleep. The findings confirm the reason why so many users smoke before bedtime – marijuana acts as a highly effective sleep aid by decreasing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
But what happens after you fall asleep? Studies show that marijuana also has an impact on the different stages of the sleep cycle; namely, slow-wave sleep and REM sleep.
As it turns out, slow-wave sleep and REM sleep are somewhat intertwined, at least for nighttime users of cannabis. Studies have found that ingestion of THC – the psychoactive compound in marijuana – leads to an increase in total slow-wave sleep. An increase in slow-wave sleep leads to a decrease in REM sleep, which explains why marijuana users report little to no dreaming during their nighttime slumber.
Another interesting finding is the “REM rebound” effect that is commonly observed upon cessation of THC intake. Common characteristics of an REM rebound are restlessness and overly vivid dreaming, which are a result of the brain spending more time in the REM stage than it usually would. An increase in REM sleep has also been linked to depression and symptoms of bipolar disorder.
What This Means For Your Health
Taking everything into consideration, it seems rather conclusive that bedtime marijuana use does in fact disrupt one’s sleep. However, its effects on overall health are not entirely negative, but rather seem to go both ways.
In addition to helping its user fall asleep faster, the effect of marijuana on slow-wave sleep may also be viewed as beneficial. Experts say that the most damaging effects of sleep deprivation are caused by inadequate slow-wave sleep; for instance, research has shown that reduced slow-wave sleep can be a powerful predictor of high blood pressure in older men. Thus, users who suffer from a lack of overall sleep may actually benefit from using marijuana.
On the flip side, a lack of REM sleep should be viewed as a potential drawback of nighttime marijuana use – although experts are still unsure of what REM sleep actually does for the brain. The fact that brain cells are highly active during REM sleep suggests that it does not play a role in the rest and repair of the brain. What’s more, research shows that REM sleep deprivation has little to no impact on learning and memory, with some studies showing that it may even improve memory. A lack of REM sleep has also been found to alleviate symptoms of depression. Even still, experts are confident that REM sleep has some sort of positive effect on the body, while it remains to be determined what exactly it may be.
All in all, marijuana users should take caution when using marijuana as a sleep aid. However, the use of commonly abused substances such as nicotine and alcohol are definitely not recommended before bedtime – both of which are known to disrupt the sleep cycle as well as exacerbate pre-existing sleep disorders. On the other hand, studies have shown that nighttime marijuana use may be beneficial for the treatment of sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea.