Sweet Dreams #2: How Cannabis Affects Deep Sleep

Yes, cannabis makes you sleepy. But, can it really increase your restorative sleep? This Sweet Dreams segment is all about how cannabis affects deep sleep.

May 31, 2016

You don’t have to be a skilled cannabis user to know that the herb makes you sleepy. After a small dose of your favorite botanical nightcap, you’ll find yourself drifting peacefully off to sleep. But, what effect does cannabis have on your sleep cycles? Can it actually help you achieve restorative sleep? This Sweet Dreams segment is all about how cannabis affects deep sleep. 

What is deep sleep?

Deep sleep is restorative sleep. Each distinct stage in the sleep cycle (outlined in our first Sweet Dreams segment) has its own unique purpose. The purpose of deep sleep is healing, recovery, and restoration. The first two stages of the sleep cycle are all about winding your body down and preparing for deep sleep. Once deep sleep hits, your body begins to detox and repair itself.

The brain actually shrinks during this phase of the sleep cycle. Neuroscientist Jeff Iliff explains that during sleep, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flows into the brain and helps wash the organ clean of waste products that accumulate over the day. While you’re awake the CSF surrounds the brain and helps protect it from harm. During sleep, however, new research has found that it actually flows into the brain and removes toxic bioproducts.

Without this “rinsing”, the build-up of byproducts may play a role in the development of several different conditions, including Alzheimer’s. This nightly cleaning also helps reduce “brain fog” and helps you feel refreshed and ready to start the day after a good sleep.

Similar activities happen in other parts of the body as well. For example, your body releases hormones like human growth hormone. As it’s name suggests, human growth hormone is responsible for the healthy growth and reproduction of cells and tissue. Bodybuilders often use human growth hormone to grow and maintain muscle.

Be warned, though. You won’t find any sweet dreams during deep sleep. Unfortunately, bedwetting, sleep talking, and sleepwalking have deep sleep to thank. Of course, not everyone is prone to these types of behaviors. But, if they happen to you, deep sleep is the culprit.

How cannabis affects deep sleep

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Deep sleep is the portion of the sleep cycle most affected by cannabis. When you smoke a bedtime bowl or partake in some other way, you alter your endocannabinoid levels. Research has found that the primary psychoactive in cannabis, THC, extends the amount of time you spend in deep sleep. It also shortens the amount of time you spend in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is dreaming stage of sleep when memories are stored.

It’s difficult to say what overall impact the increased time in deep sleep actually has on the body. Less time in REM sleep means that recording new memories may be harder. Further, if you’re woken up during deep sleep, you’re probably going to feel groggy and have a difficult time adjusting to waking up for a few minutes. It’s not uncommon to feel a kind of “sleep hangover” the next day. This is especially true if you’ve missed out on an REM cycle or two. REM sleep helps you prepare for waking. Common signs of a deep-sleep hangover include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mental fog
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Sluggish

Those suffering from sleep disorders or other medical conditions, however, may actually benefit from more time catching some deep Zs. Other health conditions have been associated with poor deep sleep as well. One 2011 study found that men who do not spend enough time in deep sleep are more likely to develop hypertension. Further research has found that poor deep sleep increases the risk for type 2 diabetes.

Yet, if you’re a regular consumer, you may miss out on some of these benefits. Once you develop a tolerance for the herb, it begins to impact your deep sleep less. Taking a tolerance break every now and again can help rekindle the plant’s sedative effects.

Sleep deprivation

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Not sleeping for a long time really does some damage. When you don’t get enough deep sleep, your body cannot properly heal, recover, and clean out waste. Sleep deprivation also causes imbalances in the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a network of cell receptors in our body that helps regulate everything from appetite, mood, reward response, the immune system, and our circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. When it starts to get light outside, we have the natural inclination to wake up. As it gets dark, we slow down and become sleepy.

The endocannabinoid system and circadian rhythms have a complicated relationship. One small study has found that levels of a particular endocannabinoid, Anandamide, become very dysregulated with sleep deprivation. Anandamide is one of the primary compounds that THC replaces in the body. Nonpsychoactive cannabidiol, CBD, also boosts anandamide levels. CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in cannabis.

When you’re sleep deprived, the brain automatically starts producing more endocannabinoids. It starts pumping you full of your body’s own THC. Researched published this year found that levels of  2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) are significantly higher you’re sleep deprived.  2-AG is another endocannabinoid similar to THC. It helps regulate pain, pleasure, and appetite. Not only does more 2-AG make you hungrier, but it also makes you feel tired. This is the body’s way of trying to coax you to sleep.

Since endocannabinoids become so out of sync with a lack of sleep, it makes sense why so many insomniacs out there love cannabinoid medicines. Cannabis, especially high-CBD cannabis, helps to improve endocannabinoid tone in those who may be a little out of balance. If you haven’t slept well for a long time, some extended time in deep sleep may have some benefits as well. However, not enough is known about the effects of more deep sleep to draw firm conclusions.

Picking the right strain

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Not all cannabis helps you fall asleep, however. If you’re searching for some quality shut-eye, you’ll need to find the right strain. Sativa strains tend to be more energizing, like a strong cup of coffee. Sativa-dominant hybrids will have similar effects. For sleep, indicas are the best option. While sativas are more cerebral, indicas create a strong sensation of bodily relaxation. You’ll quickly feel your eyelids grow heavy, and dozing off will be a breeze. Some great indica strains include:

Using a little herb before bedtime will definitely allow you to catch up on your rest. It may also be extremely helpful for those who struggle to get enough deep sleep. If you’re using it as your primary sleep aid, be sure to take a tolerance break every once in a while so that the plant keeps working. As always, if you’re concerned about sleep or haven’t been getting enough of it, make sure you talk to a doctor before diving into any new treatments.

Have you ever experienced a sleep hangover? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

May 31, 2016