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An Overview of Using Cannabis as a Sleep Aid

January 22, 2018 @ 2:09PM

Sleep problems suck. It’s a universal truth we can all agree on. When balancing one's work schedule, family time, and personal tasks can already pose daily challenges, the last thing any of us needs is a restless night of tossing and turning. As a [medically endorsed] recreational cannabis shop, a considerable percentage of our customers actually have therapeutic uses in mind when they’re buying cannabis; this is to say that it’s very common for customers to tell us that they want something that will help them sleep.


There’s a lot of information online about how cannabinoids affect sleep, and much of the data seems counter-intuitive if not contradictory. We’ve taken the time to wade through the studies and articles, compare them to the experiences of our staff and customers, and organized the most pertinent information as thoroughly (but concisely) as possible.



Indica (THC)

Let’s get this one out of the way first. It seems like only yesterday sleeplessness was a simple subject to address in our industry: just smoke (or vape) a heavy indica strain at night. While that sentiment is admittedly anecdotal, antiquated, and unscientific, it has been popular lore in the medical marijuana industry for decades, and it seemingly proved useful for many people until the product varieties and the research became more sophisticated. Nowadays these buzzkill cannabis researchers keep saying that the classifications of indica and sativa are irrelevant, and that the strain’s unique combination of terpenes and cannabinoids is more useful for helping to determine a strain’s effects... but you’ve already read our blog entitled Indica, Sativa, and Other Myths, so I’m not going on that rant again.


To the dismay of these dedicated scientists on the front lines of marijuana research, we still do think it’s a good idea to experiment with heavy indica strains to help you fall asleep. Budtender Moriah, for example, takes dabs of The White (Oleum Extracts) as part of her bedtime routine, while I like to vape sedating buds like MK Ultra (Virginia Company) or Hindu Kush (Puffin Farm) to knock myself out. But don’t take our word for it; a 2014 survey of medical marijuana users concluded with the majority of participants stating that they prefer indica strains for helping them fall asleep.



Cannabidiol (CBD)

Interestingly, we see a great deal of customers who specifically seek out CBD products to help them sleep. Anecdotally, some of our clientele reports that using CBD in the evening helps them prepare for bed, including budtender Lahna who says Dancehall bubble hash (Puffin Farm) and ACDC wax (Cowlitz Gold) have her "floating to sleep lately.” CBD, as you’re probably well aware, is a complex cannabinoid with a wide range of therapeutic benefits, but its relationship to sleep and sedation is somewhat complicated.


Project CBD wrote an extremely thorough and well-researched article about CBD and sleep that’s worth reading, but if you don’t have time to read the novel, the abridged version of the story is that CBD is actually “alerting or mildly stimulating in moderate doses,” but sedative in much higher doses (160 - 600mg of CBD in human models). In a research paper cleverly entitled Cannabis, Pain, and Sleep: Lessons from Therapeutic Clinical Trials of Sativex®, a Cannabis-Based Medicine, the authors conclude that a combination of CBD and THC— about 15mg of each— “improves sleep synergistically.”

To paraphrase the research, THC reduces sleep latency (helps people fall asleep faster), and CBD helps people stay asleep longer than THC alone does.



Cannabinol (CBN)

THC and CBD aren’t the only cannabinoids that can help with sleep… there’s one more you may not be as familiar with called cannabinol (CBN). As THC degrades over time, it converts into CBN, and this chemical is 5 times more sedative than THC. The ideal cannabinoid for bedtime, CBN forms very slowly, so it can be challenging to locate in the recreational market. Fortunately for our customers, we do carry the only specialty CBN product in Washington state: CBN spray tincture by Green Revolution. “[The reaction has been] nothing short of amazing,” says Joe Derr of Green Revolution, who has received a lot of positive feedback from customers who struggle with sleeplessness, “we’ve heard stories of people that had insomnia for 10 or 20 years—people who've acclimated to their sleep medications—and this is the first time they got a good night’s sleep in years.” We also started carrying Green Revolution’s water-based Beauty Sleep tincture.


Otherwise, you probably won’t find buds or vape carts that include lab results for CBN; your best bet for finding something with CBN is to buy some aged weed. Being a diligent reader of the Herbn Elements blog, you already know that the harvest date isn’t a concrete metric for assessing the moisture content (“freshness”) for a bag of weed, but in this case, you might want to ask your budtender for something older specifically because it’s more likely to have CBN. "You’re gonna see more CBN in flower that sat in a bag for 6 months to a year,” says Derr, "and you’ll get 1 to 2% CBN max. If you like to smoke, get a bag of weed that you like, put it in the corner of your closet for a few months, and you got your sleepy time weed.” For the record, Green Revolution utilizes a propriety process to convert THC into CBN, so they don’t need to use old flower to create their CBN tincture.



Tolerance

The elephant in the room regarding cannabis and sleep is that there are diminishing returns; the frequency of marijuana use is a factor in sleep quality, and those who consume less cannabis in general tend to have a better experience using THC as a sleep aid. In one study, 39% of daily cannabis users had clinically significant insomnia, compared to 10% of occasional pot smokers who had insomnia complaints¹. As many of our budtenders and customers can attest, those who consume cannabis daily build a tolerance to its effects, so one strategy to combat this— without actually taking a tolerance break, of course— is to purchase small amounts of multiple strains or products and “rotate” them on a daily basis so you don’t acclimate to any one product too quickly. If you need guidance, our budtenders can help you build a sampler pack of indica buds, CBD products, and tinctures (or anything else you’re open to experimenting with), then you can try keeping a “weed journal” to help you evaluate (and remember) which products work best for you.



More Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Marijuana products can be effective for helping people fall asleep and/or stay asleep, but by no means are they a “cure for insomnia.” In addition to cannabis, natural herbal supplements like melatonin, valerian root, and chamomile are useful sleep aids worth trying (many of our ingestible products specifically intended for sleep already contain one or more of these ingredients; Fairwinds’ Deep Sleep tincture, for example, contains valerian, chamomile, and a 2:1 ratio of THC to CBD).


In the case of melatonin, small doses (1mg or less) are more effective than high doses. "I’ve been using a combo of a small dose of liquid melatonin tincture to get me to sleep, and the Green Revolution or Fairwinds sleep tincture to help me stay asleep,” says Herbn Elements co-owner Andrea Sligar. "Sometimes I’ll go for a 1:1 edible to help keep me asleep since it stays in my system longer. I’ve definitely seen improvements in my sleep."


Other useful strategies are to go to bed at the same time every night, and to avoid watching TV or using your phone in the hour leading up to bedtime. If all else fails, try reading Washington’s I502 regulations tonight and see how long you can stay awake.




Footnote

¹ Curiously, when controlling for the presence of anxiety or depression in the participants, the differences disappeared, suggesting that cannabis may be more useful as a sleep aid for people afflicted with depression (those who don’t have depression, however, may not benefit as much from using cannabis for sleep). As usual, we’re not making any medical claims here, just reporting on the data.




Article by Ramsey Doudar; an in-house marketing and social media strategist at Herbn Elements. Ramsey's perspective is influenced by 1.5 years of budtending, 5 years as a cannabis industry marketing professional, and 10 years of being a super picky medical patient.