If you’ve ever complained of sleep issues, chances are that someone you know, or some guide on the internet, has told you to try smoking a little weed. In both the cannabis community and pop culture, it is an article of faith by now that some strains or products promote quick and sound sleep; insomnia is one of the most common reasons people seek out marijuana today.
But ask anyone who’s researched weed and its components’ effects on sleep and they’ll be quick to tell you that most of the accepted wisdom floating around on weed and sleep is dubious and oversimplified at best. In truth, says Jeffrey Raber, founder of The Werc Shop, a weed testing lab, “we don’t know much of anything concretely” about weed and sleep issues. This doesn’t mean that cannabis has no utility for sleep, Raber adds, just that consumers need to question all common narratives on the issue and approach weed for sleep with solid knowledge and a degree of caution.
Is indica better than sativa for sleep?
Perhaps the oldest, most common, and simplest line floating around the cannabis world is that for good sleep, you want a soothing indica strain rather than an upper sativa strain. High Times, Leafly, and other cannabis community outlets regularly publish lists of indicas, with maybe a few hybrids thrown in, that ought to knock you right out. However, this narrative, Raber and other researchers agree, is based on imprecise user anecdotes. Many of these testimonials may be influenced by earlier anecdotes, and a placebo effect built around that hype and expectation.
“People are more likely to buy indicas to help them sleep,” says Marcel Bonn-Miller, a psychologist who studies cannabis’s effects on anxiety and sleep, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean indicas are better than sativas for sleep; there is no indication there is any difference in effect between the two strains. Bonn-Miller believes people are just buying indicas because other people tell them, "'You should use this for this,' so that’s what they buy.”
In truth, Bonn-Miller and other researchers note, the line between indicas and sativas can be utterly superficial and misleading. Two indicas could contain different compounds with radically different effects on sleep. The same indica in two different shops may not actually have remotely similar chemical profiles; one may not even actually be an indica. And the quality of one batch of indica from the same grower could vary significantly from another with real effects on its value for sleep.
This speaks to the wider unpredictability of using cannabis-the-whole-plant to address sleep. As cannabis pharmacology researcher Ryan Vandery points out, raw weed is chemically complex and ultimately unreliable; it’s hard to nail down how any given batch will affect any given individual’s sleep in fine and consistent detail. Even some distributors recognize these limitations today, like Dina Browner—a.k.a. Dr. Dina, a fixture of the California dispensary scene. “Usually, when you just buy a bag of weed, you don’t get to pick the compounds in that bud structure,” she says.
Does THC or CBD help you sleep better?
Researchers have studied some of the components of cannabis and found that they do have, as Vandery puts it, “a direct and pretty pronounced effect on sleep.” THC, he explains, clearly knocks people out faster than usual and can cut back on REM sleep, the stage in which we dream, which could help individuals with PTSD or anxiety who endure rest-sabotaging nightmares. CBD may help with depression and anxiety as well, promoting easier and more restful sleep.
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But this research is in its infancy, especially when it comes human, versus animal, studies, Bonn-Miller points out. Vandery also cautions that just because we know about how a compound effects sleep in general, that doesn’t mean we know how to best use it for sleep disorders. For starters, points out Kymron deCesare of the cannabis-testing lab Steep Hill, poor sleep could be the result of anything from a restless mind to a restless leg. Each issue might require some different, as of yet unclear mixture of compounds. Some might be entirely beyond weed and its components’ remits. Plus, Vandery notes, individual biology, due to heredity or environmental factors, could lead to intense person-to-person variation in effects, which we do not understand well enough yet.
Existing research also shows that cannabis and its compounds can have adverse effects on sleep in some circumstances. CBD seems in some studies to promote wakefulness rather than sleep. And different doses of THC can yield vastly different effects; getting the wrong dose could, say, spike someone’s anxiety rather than mellow them out. THC can also have long-lasting effects, leading to continued grogginess in the morning. That hangover effect, Vandery says, is why researchers abandoned THC as a possible sleep aid in the 1970s. (Though it's worth noting that the prevalence and severity of 'weed hangovers' is still very much a topic of debate among researchers.)
What’s more, long-term use of cannabis can lead one to develop tolerance to its sleep-promoting effects, reducing its utility and even leading to withdrawals that leave people with even worse sleep once they stop using it. In theory, the right dosage or frequency of use could mitigate these potential negative effects. But substantive research is not yet at a stage where anyone I spoke to could offer real advice on those elements.
This messy picture rarely makes it to individuals seeking sleep help because, as cannabis doctor Jordan Tishler notes, retailers and hardcore advocates tend to latch onto suggestions that something in weed may help with sleep as proof that it does and omit countervailing findings. This may be why individuals like Browner still insist CBD is a solid sleep aide—“CBD feels like someone you love just gave you a nice, warm hug,” she says—and reject the idea it might promote wakefulness, as researchers suggest. Most of the researchers I’ve spoken to put this down to some mix of industry under-education and greed. “The person at the cannabis dispensary is not going to tell someone coming in to purchase products from them, ‘oh, you shouldn’t buy this,’” Vandery says.
None of the caveats or limitations researchers point to mean that weed has no utility for sleep. Most researchers just believe we need more human studies on more areas of sleep experience, on compounds beyond CBD and THC found within cannabis, like terpenes, compounds that lend weed strains their aroma and flavor and likely have major effects on the human body, and on how these varied compounds act in concert with each other with respect to different sleep states.
Until we have those studies (which are hard to conduct under current federal prohibitions on weed in general), Tishler argues that cannabis products should not be marketed for, or trumpeted by retailers as definitive sleep aides. Doing so, he believes, will undermine the possible medicinal value of cannabis in the future for this and other issues. For now, Bonn-Miller and others suggest, those looking for help with sleep issues should focus on well understood and highly effective treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps tackle the roots of insomnia.
Advice for getting started
For anyone set on exploring cannabis for sleep, though, the researchers do have some advice: Be dubious of testimonials, Tishler suggests, or any retailer or manufacturer claims. Experiment with different strains or products, Raber recommends, methodically and patiently, until you (hopefully) find something that works for your body and sleep needs. Start with a low dosage, Bonn-Miller cautions, and move up gradually to find a sweet spot without risking adverse effects. Ideally, Vandrey says, this should all be done with input from a doctor who understands your sleep issues, and only intermittently or short-term to avoid building up a tolerance or dependence.
This may sound frustrating, or unreasonable. It ought to be easier for people to figure out how such a widely touted substance will help—or hurt—their sleep. Unfortunately that's just where the science on this is to date. And it's arguably better to start with this expectation than to try some sleep-focused strain or product, find it doesn't work, and only after that hear from a bud tender, oh yeah, it doesn’t work for everyone, so you need to try more products until what you find works. “If you are using something,” though, Raber says, “and it works, keep it up.”
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