What Is Cannabis?
Cannabis1 comes from the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. Within cannabis are many active compounds, two of which are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Initially, cannabis had been used as an herbal remedy. Experts estimate it originated in Asia around 2500 years ago. The plant would eventually make its way to Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
The criminalization of cannabis in the United States began in 19372 with the Marijuana Tax Act. However, by the end of the 20th century, some states eventually enacted laws making exceptions for medical use, starting with California in 1996.
In 2018, the Agricultural Improvement Act3, also known as the 2018 Farm Bill, allowed hemp-derived cannabis products to be widely available, so long as they had less than 0.3 percent THC by weight. This national legislation was a significant step in providing more access to the public.
In recent years, more states have begun loosening their laws to also make recreational cannabis legal. By November 2023, 24 states4 have legalized recreational cannabis use.
CBD vs. THC
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), THC is the psychoactive – or mind-altering – ingredient in cannabis, which can give a person the “high” feeling. CBD, on the other hand, does not produce a mind-altering effect.1
The Science Behind Cannabis for Sleep
When taken in small doses, health experts5 say THC can act as a sedative, helping you relax. People who have difficulty turning off their brains or letting go of a stressful day may find cannabis particularly effective for falling asleep faster.
THC could also expand the amount of time you spend in slow-wave – or deep – sleep. Deep sleep is essential for the consolidation of memories.
However, additional preliminary research suggests a link between cannabis and REM sleep, the more active sleep stage when dreams typically occur. The findings propose that cannabis use decreases REM sleep. If you are a long-term cannabis user and suddenly stop consuming it, you may find that you experience an increase6 in REM sleep.
Some people choose to solely use CBD for sleep to avoid THC’s potentially psychoactive effects. As a result, CBD has gained popularity as a nighttime sleep aid. You can purchase CBD products in numerous forms, including oil, gummies, capsules, oral sprays, vape pens, creams, and gels.
CBD is found to alleviate insomnia by treating7 several causes of it. The first is anxiety, a mental health issue that can cause the mind to race and make it difficult to relax and fall asleep.
CBD may also be an option to help reduce symptoms of chronic pain, another cause of restless nights. Research suggests applying CBD oil to the skin could lower pain and inflammation from arthritis. According to Harvard Health, CBD side effects include nausea, fatigue, and irritability.
In addition to helping with sleep-related issues, CBD has been found to reduce the number of seizures in more severe pediatric epilepsy syndromes such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS). Epidiolex8 is made from a purified form of CBD and is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat seizures in patients with either Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome. However, that is the only CBD-based drug formally approved by the FDA.
A 2020 cannabis consumer study9 showed a 34 percent increase in cannabis use right before bed from the first to the second half of 2020. As a result, many cannabis and CBD companies have created products marketed explicitly for better sleep.
Side Effects of Using Cannabis
Cannabis can affect people differently. For example, if you rarely consume cannabis or never have it, you may experience side effects differently from regular users.
In addition to feeling relaxed and in a “high” state, you could experience the following symptoms10:
- Heightened Senses
- Altered Perception of Time
- Increased Appetite
Different Strains of Cannabis
The two main cannabis strains11 started as Indica and Sativa. Indica was historically known for its calming effect, whereas Sativas used to be more beneficial during the daytime as they were energizing. When these two are combined, a third category, hybrid, is created. Most of the strains on the market are more hybrids than simply Indica or Sativa. Hybrids are also usually labeled as either Indica-dominant or Sativa-dominant.
How to Use Cannabis for Insomnia
How you choose to consume cannabis to foster better rest is a matter of personal preference. Along with inhaling or ingesting cannabis, you can use it through topical products. As far as dosage12, experts suggest starting lower than you think, mainly if you are eating an edible.
Edibles are foods or beverages infused with cannabis. People can find various edible cannabis products such as gummies, chocolates, tea, and brownies.
However, when you consume cannabis through a food or beverage, you should feel the effects slightly later than you would from inhaling. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that it takes at least 30 minutes to an hour for the effects to appear.10 The reason for this delay is that the cannabis has to first go through the digestive tract.
Ingesting cannabis also results in less THC in the bloodstream compared to inhalation. However, the experts warn that people unaware of these facts could inadvertently consume too much because they think the edible is not working.
The other option is to smoke cannabis. People can do this in several ways, including using a joint, blunt, bong, or pipe.
That being said, inhaling any type of smoke, including cannabis, is oftentimes not the preferred or recommended way to access the benefits of cannabis because of the risk it poses to your lungs and overall health.
Another method for accessing the benefits of cannabis is through topical products, such as lotions and creams. These products are exactly as they sound; you can rub them on your skin as you would any other type of lotion. CBD lotions and creams may help alleviate joint and muscle pain from conditions such as arthritis13.
Tinctures are often CBD formulations14 that can be either alcohol-based or oil-based. You can use tinctures by either putting some under your tongue for 30 seconds to a full minute, or by adding it to a food or beverage.
Benefits of Using CBD Tinctures
One of the benefits of CBD tinctures, either with or without THC in them, is that they have a higher bioavailability compared to CBD edibles or lotions, which means your body can absorb them easier if taken under the tongue.14 Another benefit of tinctures is that they don’t pose the health risk that smoking cannabis products has and they can be taken at a range of doses.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should you use cannabis before bed every night?
Although occasional cannabis use could improve your sleep, Delphi Behavioral Health Group warns that prolonged use could worsen sleep quality by leading to a decrease in deep sleep along with irregular REM sleep patterns.5
They also say that cannabis withdrawal symptoms may include increased REM sleep and more limb movements while at rest, with symptoms potentially lasting up to six weeks.5 That being said, more studies are needed to determine the long-term ramifications of cannabis use for sleep.
Can cannabis help with sleep apnea?
The first is that cannabis helps the body maintain normal biological functions while sleeping, such as breathing. This effect, in turn, reduces the number of episodes of disrupted breathing.
Secondly, cannabis regulates the delivery of serotonin to help keep throat muscles dilated enough for a clear air pathway.
In the study cited above, the sample size was relatively small. Therefore, more extensive, more complete studies would need to be performed to conclude whether weed could cure sleep apnea.
If you are having trouble with sleep apnea, take a look at our list of best mattresses for sleep apnea.
Is cannabis a drug?
Cannabis comes from the flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant, and therefore, it can be confusing to understand whether this is considered a drug. However, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA16) refers explicitly to cannabis as a “psychoactive drug.”
While opinions on cannabis use continue to evolve, health experts still encourage users to be cautious with this substance just as they should be with other products such as alcohol and tobacco. Even though cannabis could help you achieve a better night of rest, there are also significant risks that you should know.
Cannabis products that include THC can impair aspects of athletic performance such as timing, movement, and coordination. Whether you are a professional, student-athlete, or part of a recreational athletic group, you need to consider how cannabis could affect your physical abilities. In some cases, organizations may not allow cannabis, and you may have to either discontinue use or avoid cannabis during sports.
According to SAMHSA, individuals under the influence of cannabis products with THC can experience slower reaction times, weaving in and out of lanes, poor coordination, and trouble reacting to sounds and road signals.16 So for your safety and the safety of others, avoid getting behind the wheel if you use any cannabis products with THC in them.
What happens if I take too much?
According to the CDC, a person who overdoses on a cannabis product with THC may experience confusion, anxiety, paranoia, panic, a rapid heart rate, delusions or hallucinations, high blood pressure, and severe nausea or vomiting.1 These symptoms could also cause the user to hurt or injure themselves unintentionally.
Furthermore, the CDC warns that combining alcohol and cannabis could cause you to become more impaired.1 For those taking prescription medications, you should consult with your physician before using cannabis to ensure the substance will not hinder the medicine’s effects.
How long does cannabis stay in your body?
The National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that the primary effects of cannabis last one to three hours, but THC traces can remain in the body for up to several days.
You should also consider this as it pertains to your current job or a potential new employer, who may not permit the use of cannabis and require regular drug screenings. However, it’s important to note that these drug screenings only test for THC specifically as that is the main compound of concern.
If you are unsure of anything, though, consulting with the company’s human resources department could help minimize any confusion on what is allowed.
Who should not use cannabis?
Even though many people may safely and comfortably use cannabis, experts stress that certain people should not consume this product. Firstly, children and teens should never use cannabis without the guidance of a healthcare provider.
According to Consume Responsibly, cannabis’ effects on brain development remain unclear.12 One study17 found that long-term cannabis use lowers the amount of gray matter in the brain, the area responsible for processing information.
Even though cannabis may not be as addictive as cigarettes or alcohol, anyone vulnerable to addiction should avoid it. You should also keep this in mind when using cannabis for sleep, so you do not risk becoming dependent on it. According to SAMHSA, one out of six people who use this drug before 18 could become addicted, and one out of 10 adult users can become addicted.16
Those living with mental health issues are also advised to steer clear of cannabis use. According to Consume Responsibly, there has been evidence linking cannabis to worsened psychosis, depression, and schizophrenia symptoms.12
Lastly, pregnant women should not consume cannabis while they are expecting. The chemical compounds could harm the child and their development inside the womb. In addition, research18 suggests cannabis could lead to low birth weight and concentration difficulties down the road.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
- “Marijuana and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified June 11, 2021.
- “Marijuana”. History. 2019.
- “Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill”. US Food and Drug Administration. 2019.
- “Ohio just voted to legalize recreational marijuana. See a list of every state where cannabis is legal”. Business Insider. Last modified November 9, 2023.
- “Marijuana Abuse: Addiction Potential, Symptoms, and Effects”. Delphi Behavioral Group. Webpage accessed November 22, 2023.
- I. Feinberg, I., et al.“Effects of marijuana extract and tetrahydrocannabinol on electroencephalographic sleep patterns”. National Library of Medicine. 1976.
- “Cannabidiol (CBD)-what we know and what we don’t”. Harvard Health. 2020.
- “FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products, Including Cannabidiol (CBD)”. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2021.
- Scanlon, Madeline. “Staying Well by Falling Asleep with Cannabinoids”. Brightfield Group. 2021.
- “What are marijuana’s effects?”. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2020.
- “Find the perfect strain for you”. Leafly. Webpage accessed November 22, 2023.
- “Know your limit”. Consume Responsibly. Webpage accessed November 22, 2023.
- “CBD for Arthritis Pain: What You Should Know”. Arthritis Foundation. Last modified September 14, 2022.
- Tran, Trang., Varanasi PharmD, Swathi. “WHAT IS A CBD TINCTURE?”. Element Apothec. 2022.
- Prasad, Bharati., Radulovacki, Miodrag G., Carley, David W. “Proof of concept trial of dronabinol in obstructive sleep apnea”. Frontiers. 2013.
- “Know the Risks of Marijuana”. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2021.
- Battistella, Giovanni., et al., “Long-Term Effects of Cannabis on Brain Structure”. National Library of Medicine. 2014.
- “What You Need to Know About Marijuana Use and Pregnancy”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified October 19, 2020.