How weed affects dreams

Cannabis helps people fall asleep, but what happens after that?

Jan 21, 2018
dreams

Last night, after dim sum, I had a few dabs, fell asleep and had a wild dream where I saw cultists outside my window collecting the neighborhood garbage bins to place potato-sized men in them. I kidnapped one of the potato-people to try and get some answers as to what was going on, only to have my house raided by the cultists, who I then fought against with my neighbor’s golden retriever. What a dream. A+ stuff.

Can I blame the drugs for that wild rollercoaster, or should I blame them for not having those dreams more often? Smokers who have been friendly with weed for awhile can attest to the fact that cannabis can enhance their daytime thoughts while making their nighttime dreams not nearly as lucid. This is not a coincidence. As hazy as the science is, there seems to be a consensus among experts and even anecdotally that, despite what you might expect, marijuana actually makes your dreams duller, not wilder. Though there are some caveats.

Sleep is a complicated thing. Even if it feels like the opposite of doing something, every full night’s sleep goes through four to five cycles. There’s light sleep, deep sleep, and eventually, you reach rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). It’s that REM stage where dreams occur. As you may already know, you actually dream multiple times a night but will only recall a dream that’s interrupted by waking up, since you do not have conscious memory in sleep.

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Photo courtesy of Vincius Marchi Appel / EyeEm/ via Getty Images

While conventional memory isn’t functioning during REM sleep, emotional memory is. Throughout sleep, your mind is processing recent events and REM sleep breaks down their effects on you. Even when you don’t remember these dreams, this pure emotional memory usually acts as a prime mover for your emotional state the following day. If you don’t get a full night’s sleep, you aren’t just feeling cruddy because of your lack of energy, you’re feeling cruddy because your brain isn’t keeping up with your emotional stimulations.

Cannabis, it is believed, interrupts REM sleep. Some doctors believe cannabis suppresses the waking mind’s ability to process stimulation, which then prevents a functioning REM sleep. Others believe this interruption isn’t exclusive to cannabis at all, and REM sleep can be interrupted similarly by alcohol, antidepressants, commonplace disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea, and even allergy medications.  

“I think it leaves a lot of what we experience and what we learn during the day unprocessed,” Dr. Rubin Naiman tells CBC radio. “In some ways, they are walking around as a shadow of themselves.”

What may surprise you, unless you’ve experienced it yourself, is that taking a break from cannabis can lead to even more intense dreams than you experienced before taking up pot. In that same CBC radio piece, science journalist Bob McDonald speaks with ‘Thomas,’ a self-described ‘strong dreamer’ who smokes a gram a day. When he took a weed break during a vacation in Mexico, he recalled a dream more vivid than anything he experienced in recent history, in which he was chased through an abandoned school by killer children. Dr. Naiman describes it as a ‘chemical dam.’ “We essentially get a gush,” says Dr. Naiman, “a high-pressure rebound.”

There’s a cruel irony in it. Many people smoke weed to fall asleep and to help combat the effects of insomnia. But that comes with a chance that the full sleep cycles will be interfered with. This depends on the individual, of course. You could even use these adverse effects to your advantage. New York Magazine’s The Cut spoke with Seth Smith, a Navy veteran who struggled with nightmares even before his service.

“My friends who had been so good about not using cannabis around me during my military service began to tell me about its health benefits and how it wasn’t just about getting high anymore,” said Smith. “I now use cannabis regularly, particularly to treat restlessness and disturbed sleep. I swear by it. My dreams are far less of a nuisance than they once were.”

Jan 21, 2018