Marijuana and Sleep

As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. Consult your physician before implementing any of these topics; we are here to educate. We are not your physician. Note: This post may contain affiliate links to the products we use. 

Marijuana and Sleep

Colloquial wisdom suggests marijuana use boosts sleep quality. With many subjective reports of increased total sleep, less time to fall asleep (decreased sleep latency), and more restorative and restful sleep, what does the scientific literature include to support these claims? 

The cannabinoids in marijuana

Cannabinoids are the underlying elements that compose the cannabis or marijuana plant. Interestingly, the human central and peripheral nervous systems have innate receptors for cannabinoid-like molecules, known as endocannabinoids. 

These endocannabinoids are produced within the body and are responsible for a host of downstream signaling effects. Some of these effects, like those seen with many exogenous (ingested from outside) cannabinoids, are responsible for a calming or ‘suppressive’ effect within the nervous system. The downstream suppression seen by activating these receptors can aid in relaxation, sleep onset, and much, much more. 

In marijuana, however, there are a host of cannabinoids responsible for a wide variety of physiological outcomes. Some of these cannabinoids are stimulating while others are calming. Further adding to the mix, cannabis and marijuana contain terpenes, which are non-cannabinoid molecules. What are a few of the most common elements of the cannabis plant or marijuana flower? [1-3]

CBD

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid responsible for pain relief, reduced anxiety, improved subjective sleep quality, and more. To reiterate, this molecule is not psychoactive, meaning it provides no ‘high’ to the user. 

THC

THC is the psychoactive part of the marijuana flower and plant. THC is responsible for the ‘high’ associated with marijuana use and has potent effects throughout the body and mind. When isolated, THC has significant effects on sleep, anxiety, focus, and more. 

Terpenes

Terpenes are components of many plants, not just marijuana. Terpenes are responsible for the flavor and smell of plants, including those experienced by marijuana users. For example, lavender and cannabis both contain the terpene linalool, and this terpene is partly responsible for the sensory experience of lavender. 

In both plants, linalool has been found to protect the body against stress-induced immunosuppression, reduce anxiety, and provide relief from symptoms of depression. Terpenes can be activating or suppressing in the body. 

When we look at the entire effect of marijuana use on sleep, we must include the full spectrum of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other elements of the plant. Different types of marijuana and cannabis plants have varying amounts of each of these molecules, so further research must be performed to truly refine how different plants affect the composition of sleep and recovery. [1-3]

What does the literature say about marijuana use and sleep? 

As a brief refresher, human sleep is broken into REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. NREM sleep is further separated into 4 stages of sleep: light NREM sleep in stages 1 and 2 and deep sleep in stages 3 and 4. Stages 3 and 4 are sometimes collectively called slow-wave sleep. It is in this stage that the vast majority of tissue repair and ‘restoration’ occurs. It is also in this stage that the most human growth hormone (hGH) is produced. [4-9]

For a more complete description of the different stages of sleep, read our full sleep performance blog here

With marijuana use, the body of research on sleep is somewhat mixed. The majority of researchers have concluded that marijuana leads to increased light and deep NREM sleep, while the same body of research largely suggests marijuana somewhat reduces REM sleep. [1]

Increased light NREM sleep, and particularly increased stage 2 NREM sleep, can enable increased memory processing and motor memory improvements. Increased deep NREM SWS can lead to increased tissue repair and better immune function. 

REM is responsible for memory processing and consolidating newly learned information. Decreased REM stages can diminish the brain’s ability to perform these functions. [4-9]

The downstream effects of marijuana use (and subsequent abstinence):  

Researchers have found that the most significant impact of marijuana on sleep occurs when consistent users abstain from cannabis. Withdrawals from cannabis lead to increased sleep latency, reduced slow wave sleep/stages 3 & 4 NREM, reduced total sleep time, and decreased sleep efficiency. The only areas that improve upon withdrawal from marijuana use are total REM and latency to REM, which increase and decrease, respectively. [1]


References

  1. Gordon HW. Differential Effects of Addictive Drugs on Sleep and Sleep Stages. J Addict Res (OPAST Group). 2019.
  2. Breus, M. Thinking About Using Cannabis For Sleep? Here Are Some Things To Know. The Sleep Doctor. 2018. 
  3. Gates et al. The effects of cannabinoid administration on sleep: a systematic review of human studies. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2014. 
  4. Takahashi Y, Kipnis DM, Daughaday WH. Growth hormone secretion during sleep. J Clin Invest. 1968;47(9)
  5. Van Cauter E, Plat L. Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep. J Pediatr. 1996;128
  6. Laura Redwine, Richard L. Hauger, J. Christian Gillin, Michael Irwin, Effects of Sleep and Sleep Deprivation on Interleukin-6, Growth Hormone, Cortisol, and Melatonin Levels in Humans, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 85, Issue 10, 1 October 2000, Pages 3597–3603
  7. Walker MP. The role of slow-wave sleep in memory processing. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2009: 5: S20-26
  8. Walker MP & van der Helm E, Overnight Therapy? The role of sleep in emotional brain processing. Psychological Bulletin 2009: 135: 731-748.
  9. Walker MP. Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Med, 2008: 9, S29-34.