The Dope on Pot – How Marijuana Affects Sleep and Dreams




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The U.S. is slowly and steadily moving towards legalizing marijuana in all fifty states. Almost half have already legalized medical marijuana; more are on their way. Several states have legalized recreational use of marijuana, and some have given the nod to retail outlets selling marijuana. These moves, whether brought about through the ballot box or via state legislatures, have unleashed intense public debate on the use and abuse of marijuana and the feasibility of legalizing a potentially addictive substance.

Incidentally, the therapeutic value of marijuana stems from its ability to induce deep sleep, but only during the initial period of usage. This makes it the right time to find out how exactly marijuana affects sleep, and why some scientists and physicians are worried about the potentially harmful effects of marijuana over-use that these legalization moves might result in.

Marijuana and Sleep

Several research studies have unearthed the positive association between sleep and marijuana use. It is believed that marijuana usage in limited amounts can improve the quality of sleep.

There are five stages of sleep: four NREM (non-rapid eye movement) stages marked from 1 to 4 and a fifth stage called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep that is associated with dreaming. Stages 3 and 4 represent deep, slow-wave states of sleep, where the brain switches off almost completely and the heart rate and breathing decrease considerably. These states are restorative and refreshing. The four NREM and the REM stages occur in cycles throughout the period of sleep.

According to several studies, marijuana has been found to both induce sleep and increase the duration of Stage 4 sleep. These effects improve the overall quality of sleep in an individual.

Marijuana, Sleep, and Pain Management

Marijuana has long been used for therapeutic purposes. The sleep-inducing effect of marijuana is believed to not only help individuals suffering from sleeping disorders but also provide relief to patients affected by painful medical conditions. People suffering from multiple sclerosis, many forms of cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis experience excruciating bodily pain that not only affects their living standards but also the quality of their sleep. They have trouble falling asleep and also do not enjoy adequate hours of the deep sleep that facilitate the healing process.

According to one study, drugs containing cannabis (the plant from which marijuana is extracted) improved the quality of sleep in 40-50 percent of the subjects affected with one of the above-mentioned conditions. Additionally, this study noted that there was no decrease in the effect of the cannabis-containing drug even after four years of starting the therapy. There was also no need to increase the dosage of the drug. These findings come as a ray of hope to countless people who can now dream of enhancing the quality of their lives despite their medical conditions.

Marijuana and Dreams

Marijuana has been found to decrease the length of the REM cycle of sleep by increasing the duration of the slow-wave stages of sleep. The brain is active during the REM cycle, so a person dreams. On the other hand, the slow-wave stages are dreamless states. So when a person sleeps deeply, he dreams less.

Marijuana withdrawal has been associated with troubled sleep patterns and the occurrence of vivid dreams.

Marijuana, Sleep, and PTSD

The beneficial sleep-inducing effect of marijuana has not only interested scientists and physicians but also the common man. A recent study demonstrated an increase in the use of marijuana amongst people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These people use marijuana as a means of coping with their psychological symptoms.

The classic symptoms of PTSD include frequent panic attacks in response to triggers that keep a person always on the edge and physically and mentally stressed out, disturbed sleep, and recurring nightmares. So it is not difficult to understand why PTSD sufferers would cling to marijuana, so they can sleep better and be spared the nightmares.

Marijuana Addiction: A Coping Behavior That is Hard to Shrug Off

The effects of marijuana on sleep and its therapeutic use to manage chronic pain and PTSD are some reasons that also lead to its abuse. Marijuana addiction is on the rise simply because it is a coping mechanism for many people. It is not just a substance that induces sleep; it is a drug that has given many people the chance to live a relatively pain-free life despite their medical conditions. Marijuana has also improved the quality of life of many people by helping them sleep better and be more productive and alert the next day.

So the politicians have a valid point when they pass legislation that legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, researchers sound a note of warning. Easy availability of marijuana would trigger an increase in the number of marijuana addiction cases.

Some other studies have found that heavy use of marijuana has been associated with disturbed sleep. Heavy users of marijuana often complain of lower quality of sleep, characterized by lesser time spent sleeping and lesser duration of deep sleep both when they are using the substance and when they abstain from the drug. They report struggling to fall asleep when they are not on marijuana. In fact, this is the reason why most recovering heavy marijuana addicts exhibit the most intense withdrawal symptoms and eventually relapse.

But there is good news – most of these troubling withdrawal symptoms eventually disappear after a person has been off marijuana for several weeks. This should encourage all those who are keen to break their marijuana addiction. Meanwhile, therapists and counselors should take note; the onus is on them to encourage their patients to keep going even when the withdrawal symptoms seem unbearable.

That marijuana has some medicinal benefits is no longer a moot point. What the stakeholders need to now mull over is how to control marijuana usage. Obviously, the more is not merrier here!

References

Bolla KI, Lesage SR, Gamaldo CE, Neubauer DN, Funderburk FR, Cadet JL, David PM, Verdejo-Garcia A, & Benbrook AR (2008). Sleep disturbance in heavy marijuana users. Sleep, 31 (6), 901-8 PMID: 18548836

Bonn-Miller MO, Babson KA, & Vandrey R (2014). Using cannabis to help you sleep: heightened frequency of medical cannabis use among those with PTSD. Drug and alcohol dependence, 136, 162-5 PMID: 24412475

Bonn-Miller, M., & Moos, R. (2009). Marijuana discontinuation, anxiety symptoms, and relapse to marijuana Addictive Behaviors, 34 (9), 782-785 DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2009.04.009

Cohen-Zion, M., Drummond, S., Padula, C., Winward, J., Kanady, J., Medina, K., & Tapert, S. (2009). Sleep architecture in adolescent marijuana and alcohol users during acute and extended abstinence Addictive Behaviors, 34 (11), 976-979 DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2009.05.011

Russo, E., Guy, G., & Robson, P. (2007). Cannabis, Pain, and Sleep: Lessons from Therapeutic Clinical Trials ofSativex®, a Cannabis-Based Medicine Chemistry & Biodiversity, 4 (8), 1729-1743 DOI: 10.1002/cbdv.200790150

Schierenbeck, T., Riemann, D., Berger, M., & Hornyak, M. (2008). Effect of illicit recreational drugs upon sleep: Cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana Sleep Medicine Reviews, 12 (5), 381-389 DOI: 10.1016/j.smrv.2007.12.004

Image via William Casey / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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