How Does Cannabis and Certain Cannabinoids Affect Sleep?

How Do Cannabis and Certain Cannabinoids Affect Sleep? 

*Despite what you might read elsewhere on the internet, cannabis and certain cannabinoids have not been medically proven to prevent, treat, or cure sleep problems. This article discusses ongoing research into the endocannabinoid system and should not be the foundation of any medical or health recommendations or diagnosis. If you have or suspect you may have sleep problems, talk to your doctor.*

In the early years of science, researchers believed that sleep was a relatively inactive period. However, recent evidence demonstrates your brain is highly active during sleep, and your body requires sleep for optimal health. If you've been struggling with your health and would like to enjoy better quality sleep, let's discover how research suggests that cannabinoids may help.

Most people spend about one-third of their day sleeping. Getting enough quality sleep is as essential to survival as food and water. However, while it may seem like a simple function, the physiological processes involved in sleep can be quite complex. There are several areas of the brain that help to regulate and modulate your sleep. These include the:

  • Hypothalamus
  • Suprachiasmatic nucleus
  • Brainstem
  • Thalamus
  • Cerebral cortex
  • Pineal gland
  • Basal forebrain and midbrain
  • Amygdala

There are four stages of sleep. Rapid eye movement (REM) has one stage, and there are three stages in non-REM sleep. During each stage, your brain waves, muscles, heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements undergo specific changes.

Your body has two internal mechanisms that help regulate when you are awake and when you need sleep. These are your circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostasis (stability). The first is a biological clock that's based roughly on a 24-hour day. Sleep-wake homeostasis helps you keep track of your need for sleep and remind your body to sleep after a certain amount of time. 

Several factors influence your body's need for sleep. These include what you consume, medical conditions, stress, medications, and your environment. However, perhaps the greatest influence on your body's need for sleep is exposure to light. Exposure helps regulate the release of melatonin, one hormone responsible for quality sleep.

A lack of sleep can increase your level of hunger since it affects the appetite-regulating hormone leptin. Sleep deprivation also increases your risk of a traffic accident and can decrease your performance as much as if your blood alcohol level was 0.05%. Interestingly, current research has found evidence that 75% of people dream in color. Before color television was invented, just 15% of people dreamt in color.

Endocannabinoid System and Sleep Regulation

The endocannabinoid system was named and discovered in the 1990s. At the time, researchers were analyzing how cannabinoid chemicals interact with the body. During this research, they discovered humans have two types of receptors that bind with cannabinoids.  

Receptors are structures on a cell that bind with neurotransmitters (chemicals produced by your body). These neurotransmitters tell the cell to take action. Scientists named the network of receptors after the cannabinoids they were studying - the endocannabinoid system. The receptors are called CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain, and CB2 receptors are primarily found in the gut and immune system. 

This means that your body is hardwired for cannabinoid-like chemicals. You produce these naturally and internally. These endocannabinoid chemicals may help to maintain homeostasis (stability) with many physiological processes. When this system becomes dysfunctional, it can increase your perception of pain, affect your sleep, raise inflammation, and affect your mental health.

This unique network of receptors has a distinct impact on the sleep-wake cycle. There is also evidence to suggest the endocannabinoid system may be used as a therapeutic tool in age-related sleep disturbances. However, the field is not well studied, and researchers are continuing to gather evidence to support the theory.

Cannabis and Sleep

Sleep is an essential and complex function. Evidence shows that when CB1 receptors in the brain are activated, it may lead to sleep induction. Scientists can block this effect using a selective antagonist. This means they block the CB1 receptor and thus impact the ability of a person to fall asleep. This also demonstrates that CB1 receptors may be important to sleep function.

Specifically, researchers have analyzed cannabidiol (CBD) in pursuit of learning if it may help reduce REM sleep behavior disorders and excessive daytime sleepiness. Evidence also suggests the compound most responsible for inducing sleep is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp plants have very little THC, which is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. When purchasing CBD oil, it's important to seek out full-spectrum oil. This also contains several other cannabis compounds, including low amounts of THC. There isn't enough to cause a psychoactive effect, but there is enough that research suggests may help induce sleep.

Interestingly, there is a potential bidirectional effect between sleep and endocannabinoids. This means that while the chemicals may affect your ability to sleep and your sleep quality, your sleep also affects the health of your endocannabinoid system. Evidence shows that when you are sleep-deprived, your endocannabinoid system does not work optimally. This, in turn, affects the quality of your sleep.

If you do not want to use medication (which may have significant side effects) to improve your ability to go to sleep and stay asleep, consider using a trial of full-spectrum CBD oil. Research suggests that CBD also may help to protect the nervous system, an integral part of your sleep-wake cycle. 

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