A recent study published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence suggests a possible association between cannabis use and the improvement of sleep.

Background

There have been many reports of cannabis influencing sleep regulation. These have largely been from user-submitted data, which indicates that cannabis use could help to improve sleep. However, there has been relatively little analysis conducted to further understand this relationship.

This study sought to dive further into exploring the effects of cannabis use and sleep by focusing on a few parameters of interest. In doing so, researchers hoped to provide more in-depth findings regarding the potential benefits and limitations of using cannabis as a sleep-aid.

The Study

Sleep “improvement” is a bit of a nebulous term as this is relative to the individual. What is ideal for one person may not be right for another.

The main focus of this study was to assess sleep quality improvement related to metrics of time, using scientifically-approved indicators of sleep quality. Researchers focused on the time it took to fall asleep immediately after consuming cannabis. They also assessed sleep continuity (how much sleep was interrupted). These were documented as the “number of awakenings” (NOA) throughout the night. Fewer interruptions would indicate greater sleep improvement.

Researchers had hypothesized that cannabis use would have a positive effect on sleep improvement. In the context of this study, it was therefore expected that cannabis use before bedtime would reduce the time taken to fall asleep and result in fewer awakenings throughout the night.

Methods

A total of 54 young participants (average age 29 years), identified as frequent cannabis users were selected for this study. These individuals consumed a similar amount of cannabis each day. Over one week, participants submitted daily information regarding their sleep patterns. This included the last time they smoked cannabis before bedtime, the number of minutes it took for them to fall asleep, and the number of times they woke up during the night.

In order to exclude the effect of other factors that might affect sleep, researchers controlled for a number of independent variables. These included gender, age, work and study obligations, as well as the number of alcoholic drinks consumed prior to bedtime.

After one week’s worth of data was collected, researchers used statistical analysis to determine the relationship between cannabis use and sleep patterns in participants. This also included consideration of the independent variables which had been documented before the onset of the study. These were analysed to see whether they had any significant effect on the time taken to fall asleep or the number of night-time awakenings.

Results

Ultimately, it was found that participants who recorded longer periods of time between cannabis consumption and bedtime also reported greater time in falling asleep. Conversely, those who consumed cannabis closer to bedtime reported shorter lengths of time before falling asleep. None of the independent variables had any significant effect on the time it took for participants to fall asleep.

Interestingly, researchers found that the time between cannabis use and sleep start time had no association with the number of awakenings throughout the night. With the exception of gender, there were no other variables that had a significant effect on night-time awakenings. Female participants were more likely to report night-time awakenings as compared to their male counterparts.

Significance & Limitations

For the young adults who participated in this study, these findings indicate that cannabis use reduces the time it takes to fall asleep. This effect is heightened when cannabis use occurs closer to bedtime.

The results also suggest no significant effect of cannabis use on the number of times an individual awakens during the night. The authors propose this may be because night-time awakenings occur after the person has fallen asleep, by which time the effects of cannabis have worn off.

The cannabis industry has rapidly expanded within both medical and recreational markets. In parallel, there have been many claims of the positive therapeutic effects of cannabis. Many of these are currently unsupported by proper research and therefore potentially misleading.

Cannabis has been touted as a sleep-aid throughout various channels which are not subjected to approval by medically-based industry standards. Despite this, researchers noted that they were unable to find any prior research regarding the immediate effects on cannabis use and sleep. This study therefore makes a valuable contribution to the paucity of legitimate information available on the use of cannabis as a sleep aid. It has laid the groundwork for further studies in this area. These will provide more evidence-based research to potentially add to the legitimacy of using cannabis as a sleep-aid and document its disadvantages.

This study was not without its limitations. The authors noted that, although they collected data about alcohol use in participants, they did not obtain data on other substances that may affect sleep, such as over-the-counter or prescription sleep-aids.

Researchers also did not collect any data on use of stimulants, such as coffee, tea, or energy drinks, as well as illicit substances such as cocaine and amphetamines.

Additionally, this study did not control for the amount of cannabis used by each participant. It was also unable to determine the level of cannabinoids consumed or the method of administration.

Lastly, the number of participants is relatively small, and the duration was short (7 days). Further studies using more participants and longer time periods are therefore needed.

The study noted that those who are currently experiencing sleep problems should seek out well-established, evidence-based aids, such as pharmacological and behavioural treatments currently implemented by medical practitioners.

Final Thoughts

Those suffering from poor sleep who are considering using cannabis should be aware of both its advantages and limitations. This study is a good start in providing evidence that is useful to such individuals. However, it is important to note that further research is needed to provide a conclusive, evidence-based justification for, or against, the use of cannabis as a sleep aid.

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