Proper sleep is crucial for a healthy lifestyle, but it eludes many of us. According to the American Sleep Association, between 50 and 70 million adults nationwide exhibit symptoms of a sleep disorder. Approximately 30% of all adults will experience insomnia at some point, and about 10% of people will find themselves suffering from chronic insomnia. Pharmaceutical sleep aids often leave you groggy the next day and are laden with side effects, leading patients to seek a more natural, safer alternative: cannabis.
Cannabis can help restore the body’s natural sleep cycle, which is often disrupted by modern schedules. Especially when combined with good sleep hygiene, it can help alleviate sleep problems in a variety of ways and works smoothly with your body’s natural processes to help induce sleep. Its analgesic properties can ease chronic pain, while its anti-anxiety properties can help soothe a racing mind, making falling and staying asleep easier.
Are you thinking of trying cannabis to improve your sleep? In order to get the most from your cannabis experience, there are some things you should keep in mind when making your treatment plan. Here we’ll discuss what you need to know to use cannabis to its maximum benefit for sleep.
Cannabis and the Science of Sleep
As you may already know, there are two dominant chemical compounds within cannabis. One, CBD (or cannabidiol), has a number of health benefits but is non-psychoactive, meaning it won’t give you the “high” feeling associated with cannabis use (you can find the CBD for sleep guide here). The other, THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol), is psychoactive and makes you feel the “high” associated with cannabis. THC is also the compound that is responsible for the sleepy feeling we’re seeking, so you should choose a strain that is higher in THC than CBD when selecting a strain for sleep.
According to a study conducted in 2008, consumption of high-THC cannabis can reduce REM sleep, meaning that your body spends more time in the deeper, more restful phases of sleep and less in REM, or the dream-inducing phase of sleep. This can result in more peaceful sleep, especially for those who have trouble staying asleep or struggle with nightmares. However, it is also important to note that REM sleep is a necessary phase of sleep that helps improve cognitive functioning, so it may not be a good idea to use cannabis as a sleep aid for long periods of time.
Choosing a Strain: Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid?
If you’ve spoken to your physician and they’ve recommended cannabis as a potential treatment for sleep disturbances, or if you’ve made the decision to try cannabis to help with sleep, then the next step is to choose a strain that’s right for you. Different strains have different effects on the body and it’s important to choose a strain that suits your needs and health goals. Different strains fall in one of three categories:
- Indica strains are generally relaxing and soothing, producing a mellow, drowsy effect.
- Sativa strains have more euphoric, energizing effects and are best for daytime use.
- Hybrids vary between being more Indica- or Sativa-dominant and are blends of the two strains, the specifics of which are often left up to the grower or dispensary.
While the dispensary staff can be helpful when choosing a specific strain, there are a few overall guidelines to keep in mind. First, Indica or Indica-dominant hybrids are the most likely to help you relax and doze off with ease, since they lack the cerebral “head high” of Sativas that can be overwhelming when you’re trying to sleep. Second, we recommend sticking to a strain that is about 20% THC or less. This is because super-strong strains can make dosing more difficult and are more likely to leave you feeling groggy the next morning. If you find you need something stronger, you can always increase your dose, but you can’t reduce it once you’ve ingested it. Start slower and work up if you find you need to.
How to Ingest Cannabis for Sleep
There are many different options available for cannabis ingestion. Some people prefer to smoke the flower in the form of a bowl or a joint. Others prefer to vaporize flower or cannabis concentrates (be careful when using these for sleep, they’re very potent!) through a pen or volcano vaporizer. Still others use cannabis tinctures, which can be dropped under the tongue and absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth. Ultimately the delivery method is up to you; choose whatever you feel most comfortable with.
Second, there is the question of how to find the correct dosage. This may take a bit of trial and error, so perhaps it would be best not to start at the beginning of the work week! Start slow, with just a few puffs when smoking or vaping, or a drop or two of tincture. Take note of how you feel after ingestion. Signs that you are feeling the effects of cannabis include feelings of euphoria, drowsiness, increased sensation, and a delayed sense of time. If you find you need to re-dose during the night, go ahead—just avoid dosing within four hours of your scheduled wake-up time.
How to Time Your Cannabis Dosing for Sleep
Timing is very important when using cannabis for sleep. This is one of the reasons we didn’t include edibles in our recommended ingestion methods, as the time they take to become effective is unreliable, from thirty minutes to two or three hours. You’ll need to be much more precise than that when dosing with cannabis for sleep. Edibles can also affect our bodies for much longer since they’re processed by the digestive tract and liver, as long as 8-12 hours. This can cause grogginess the next morning. For sleeping purposes, it’s best to stick to vaping, smoking, or tinctures, all of which are absorbed into the bloodstream and not processed by the gut.
While everyone processes cannabis differently, it is generally a good idea to dose about an hour before bedtime. The effects of cannabis will last three to four hours, helping you fall asleep. However, the immediate effects of cannabis, especially the sense of euphoria, can make you temporarily more excitable and therefore make it harder to sleep. Taking cannabis an hour before bed allows these effects to subside, making for a more restful sleep.
Final Considerations About Cannabis and Sleep
As with any sleep aid, cannabis may not work for everyone and does not work the same across all patients. Additionally, some people have difficulty using high-THC strains because they find it increases their anxiety and causes feelings of paranoia. If this is true for you, you can try experimenting with different strains, especially those high in CBN, which is the strongest sedative of any of the known cannabinoids. We always suggest discussing your needs with your dispensary and asking for a recommendation. You may find that certain strains can help you sleep without triggering anxiety. As with any sleep aid, cannabis is most effective when combined with good sleep hygiene. Provide yourself with a good environment for sleep, choose a consistent bedtime, and try to take a break from screens at least an hour before bed.
Additionally, consumption of cannabis by those pregnant or breastfeeding is not recommended. If you’ve recently had a heart attack, consult a physician before using cannabis, as some research has shown an increased risk of myocardial infarction associated with cannabis use. More research is needed to assess the risk of other illnesses such as COPD related to the smoking of cannabis, as well as the medical uses and benefits of cannabis.
More research on cannabis is forthcoming, as this herb (which is legal in some states, but remains illegal at the federal level and in much of the country) has been shown to have numerous health benefits and acts in similar ways to many existing pharmaceutical drugs, with far fewer and less severe side effects.