Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most effective things we can do for our mood, productivity, and even our health. Sleep gives our bodies and brains the chance to recover, restore, and recharge – not to mention being essential for maintaining healthy brain function. And yet, struggles with sleep are more common than we might realise. In fact, a whopping one in three people in the UK is regularly affected by insomnia and other sleep problems.
With a prevalence rate of this scale – and potentially serious health implications – it’s no surprise that people will take a solution anywhere they can find it. And that’s where medical cannabis comes in. We have been using cannabis for its sedative and relaxation-promoting effects for a long time, but can it really be useful in the treatment of sleep conditions like insomnia? In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the existing evidence to find out.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is characterised by difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning. It can occur as a condition in itself or as a comorbidity of other health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, and anxiety. The exact cause of insomnia can differ from person to person, and for many, it can be resolved with some simple lifestyle changes. For example, insomnia is often associated with a poor sleeping environment, as well as alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine use. Recreational drugs like cocaine and ecstasy are also often linked to insomnia.
Sleep deprivation associated with insomnia can be related to issues with memory and cognition, mood changes, weakened immune function, trouble concentrating and even high blood pressure and an increased risk of developing heart disease. Therefore, the effective management of insomnia, and other sleep conditions, is of the utmost importance for our overall health.
In more serious cases, insomnia can be persistent and have a significant effect on quality of life as well as social and professional impacts. In these cases, lifestyle changes may not be sufficient for managing the condition, and other therapies may be required. Current treatments and therapies may include over-the-counter herbal remedies, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and sleeping pills; however, serious side effects associated with the use of sleeping pills mean that they are rarely prescribed nowadays.
Insomnia and medical cannabis use
Depending on who you speak to or which articles and studies you read, you may think that cannabis either helps or hinders our sleep. But most reports indicate that it can actually do both. Rumour has it that, while THC may help to induce sleep in the short term, prolonged use may actually be associated with lower quality sleep.
What’s the evidence?
The truth is, there is still some confusion over how exactly cannabis and its derivatives affect our sleep. Many anecdotal reports from cannabis consumers – whether used for recreational or medicinal purposes – suggest that cannabis is a sure-fire way to drift off to sleep more easily. For example, in one study, almost three-quarters (71%) of participants with insomnia and other sleep conditions reported an improvement in their sleep after starting medical cannabis treatment.
Many other studies have also identified improvements in sleep quality as a secondary outcome of medical cannabis treatment for conditions such as depression and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Another study found that cannabis use decreased sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep) in people with and without sleep conditions. Furthermore, a review of existing studies found that CBD was associated with improved sleep; however, the same review also concluded that THC may decrease sleep latency in the short term but could impair long-term sleep quality.
Another important consideration is the effect of cannabis use on dreams. This might not sound like a big deal, but evidence suggests that regular cannabis use can cause a decrease in the amount of REM sleep we get – that is, the stage of our sleep when we dream. REM sleep is thought to play an important role in consolidating our memories and experiences as well as processing emotions. Of course, insomnia is also associated with a loss of REM sleep due to sleep disruption and sleep latency.
While the jury might still be out on how exactly cannabis use can affect our sleep – the existing evidence suggests that supervised medicinal use may well lead to an improvement in the severity of insomnia and other sleep conditions. For this reason, it is possible to gain a medical cannabis prescription for these indications. For more information on how to access medical cannabis, check out our guide to medical cannabis prescriptions in the UK.