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Cannabis for sleep? Here’s what the experts say

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Doctors recommend avoiding alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bed. But what about cannabis?

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One in two adults in Canada report having trouble falling and staying asleep.

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Chronic stress and poor mental health can be contributing factors and doctors recommend avoiding alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bed. But what about cannabis?

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A number of recent studies have indicated that cannabis could be a useful sleep aid for those with insomnia, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and other sleep disorders. One reason could be that cannabis helps return those with anxiety or altered sleep habits back to a normal rhythm, according to medical cannabis physician Dr. Matt Roman.

“Marijuana is an effective sleep aid because it restores a person’s natural sleep cycle, which so often falls out of sync with our schedules in today’s modern lifestyle,” Roman previously told Healthline.

But finding the right balance can be tricky. Cannabis consumers can build up a THC tolerance leading to a loss of effectiveness and consuming cannabis in different forms can also lead to different outcomes. Edibles, for example, take longer to kick in and can also contribute to a longer sleep, while those who smoke or vaporize cannabis may feel the effects faster but for a shorter duration.

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Different cannabinoids can also affect sleep outcomes in different ways, including THC and CBD, the two main active compounds in cannabis.

Cinnamon Bidwell, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of cognitive science also at the University of Colorado Boulder, recently told The New York Times that while studies have shown low doses of THC can be an effective sleep aid, the opposite is true for high doses of the cannabinoid. CBD, on the other hand, requires high doses to work most effectively for sleep and does not have the same tolerance profile as THC.

Dr. Bidwell told the Times that, in her experience, those who consume cannabis products for sleep seem to have better outcomes when they use them infrequently, as opposed to every day, which can lead to a buildup of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, including irritability, anxiety and unsettling dreams.

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“That’s one of the main reasons they go back to using it, or why they can’t fully quit because of how hard it is to sleep as part of that withdrawal,” Dr. Bidwell said.

Cannabis’ affect REM sleep can also lead to frequent consumers not remembering their dreams, which may be a good thing for those with PTSD, but can also lead to vivid and unsettling dreams when consumption stops.

“By smoking weed, you suppress the REM sleep, and with that you also suppress a lot of important functions of that REM sleep. One of those functions is reliving the things you have experienced and coming to terms with them, as it were. Processing all kinds of psychological influences is something you do in REM sleep,” Dr. Hans Hamburger, a Dutch neurologist and somnologist told VICE.

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And though studies focused on cannabis and sleep date back to the 1970s, the data is often questionable or inconclusive due to the plant’s legal status. More recently, investigators have started to examine the benefits of other cannabinoids, like CBN. While still in its early stages, there are signs that CBN may have very useful applications, most notably for sleep.

More research is needed to develop a fuller picture of how cannabis can both improve and negate sleep.

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