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Medical Marijuana and Insomnia

marijuana for insomnia

Insomnia can severely affect your day-to-day life. Estimates show that 30 to 40 percent of Americans deal with at least some symptoms of insomnia each year while 10 to 15 percent believe they have chronic insomnia. Medications to treat insomnia are often addictive and can cause serious side effects that people don’t want to deal with.

Using cannabis for insomnia is an effective alternative for many people without the potential side effects. Understanding how cannabis works for insomnia can help you decide if it’s right for you.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by a persistent difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or achieving quality slumber. You may wake up earlier than you want and not be able to fall back asleep. The amount of sleep you need to function normally may vary slightly, but adults generally need seven to eight hours nightly. People suffering from insomnia often get much less sleep than they need, which can affect them during the day. Poor quality of sleep and waking up frequently during the night also affects how you feel during the day.

Transient insomnia includes symptoms lasting up to three nights. You may periodically have trouble falling asleep or sleeping well due to a temporary issue. Acute insomnia — that is, shorter-term struggles with this sleep problem — affects many adults at some point in their lives. This type of insomnia typically only lasts for a few days or weeks. Insomnia lasting a month or longer is considered chronic.

insomnia effects

This condition can lead to memory problems, depression, irritability or an increased risk of heart disease. You may also have an increased risk of accidents due to slower reaction times and your performance may slide at work or school due to sleepiness. Insomnia may contribute to obesity, concentration issues and a compromised immune system.

In other words, insomnia is more than just an annoyance — it can contribute to a number of issues beyond sleep. The specific symptoms of insomnia may vary but typically include:

  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Waking frequently during the night
  • Waking up earlier than you want to
  • Never feeling fully rested in the morning
  • Feeling tired throughout the day
  • Tension headaches
  • Disruptions in socialization
  • Lack of coordination or more errors than normal
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Being irritable, depressed or anxious
  • Mood swings
  • General unwell feeling
  • Difficulty focusing or having memory problems
  • Worrying about sleep

Insomnia is frequently followed by functional impairment while awake and can occur at any age. However, this condition is found to be more common in the elderly. This increase in insomnia often stems from less restful sleep as you age, making it easier for you to wake up from minor disturbances. Lack of activity as you age sometimes affects your sleep. Regular exercise helps to improve your sleep, so if you get less exercise as you get older, that could interfere. As you age, you are more likely to have health conditions or take medications that make it more difficult to sleep. Keeping those medical conditions under control can also help alleviate your insomnia issues.

Insomnia is most often thought of as a sign that can accompany several sleep, medical and psychiatric disorders. However, insomnia can also be the primary condition without any other associated conditions. Insomnia as a sleep disorder with no underlying cause is an established diagnosis known as primary insomnia.

primary insomnia

Chronic insomnia often stems from lifestyle habits or medical conditions. Some of the potential causes include:

  • Stress: When you feel stressed about various parts of your life, you may have difficulty falling asleep because your mind works overtime at night. This can become worse during a major life change or trauma. Focusing on easing your stress may help minimize your insomnia symptoms.
  • Busy schedule: Your work and personal schedules can cause disruptions in your sleep. Jet lag from travel, working late or changing your itinerary frequently can throw off the circadian rhythms that help control the sleep and wake cycles. When this happens, you may have difficulty falling or staying asleep.
  • Sleep habits: A lack of a regular bedtime schedule and intermittent napping are examples of things that can throw off your schedule. You may also have difficulty falling asleep if you eat late at night, watch TV before bed or stare at a screen right before sleeping. A sleep environment with an uncomfortable temperature or too much light can also affect sleep. Changing your surroundings and getting into a more regular sleep schedule may improve your issues.
  • Mental health disorders: Anxiety disorders and depression are two examples of mental health disorders that can affect your sleep. Insomnia may be a symptom of those disorders.
  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions can cause difficulty sleeping. Insomnia becomes a symptom of that primary condition. Examples include cancer, diabetes, asthma, overactive thyroid and Alzheimer’s disease. Often, if you get the underlying condition under control, you also ease insomnia.
  • Sleep disorders: Restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea are two sleep issues that may affect how well you sleep. The sensation you feel during restless leg syndrome can make you so uncomfortable that you cannot sleep well.
  • Medication: Certain medications have a side effect of insomnia, including prescriptions for depression, asthma and blood pressure. Any medications containing caffeine or stimulants may also cause issues. This can include over-the-counter medications.
  • Stimulants: Many substances are considered stimulants and make it difficult to fall asleep. This includes caffeine and nicotine. When you consume products with caffeine or smoke cigarettes, you may have more difficulty falling asleep. Alcohol can interrupt deep sleep, even if it makes you fall asleep initially, so you wake up in the middle of the night.

Women are more likely than men to suffer from insomnia, likely due to hormones. This can be worsened by the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause. People over age 60 are more likely to have insomnia, as are people with mental or physical health conditions, elevated stress levels and irregular schedules.

Diagnosis often starts with a physical exam to determine if there is a physical cause of your insomnia. Your healthcare provider may ask questions related to your sleep habits, sleep and wake cycles and sleepiness during the day. Some people may keep a sleep diary for a certain length of time. In some cases, a sleep study is ordered to look for sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea.

Traditional Treatments for Insomnia

In cases when you know the underlying condition of insomnia, treating that cause directly will be the primary function of any treatment you opt for. If you have a medical condition, adjusting treatments to keep that condition under control may help resolve the insomnia issues, for example. If your issue is poor sleep habits, making changes to how you prepare for bedtime may help reduce insomnia. It's important to look at your overall health and habits to figure out what’s causing your sleep issues so you can address those underlying issues.

Some treatments for insomnia are non-medical. Therapy may be indicated to treat stress or any other emotional or mental causes of the disorder.

Another non-medicinal treatment is called sleep hygiene. It essentially consists of changing sleep habits and making the sleeping environment more conducive to sleep. It may also include some other lifestyle changes that seem unrelated to sleep but can affect it. These treatments work in some cases of persistent insomnia. They may also simply alleviate the problem enough that it becomes tolerable for the duration of the period of insomnia.

There may also be attempts at correcting sleep cycles before medication is indicated in cases of persistent insomnia. Patients may be told to try to stay awake at night as a sort of reverse psychology. They may also be told to sleep very little and stay away from their beds until they are actually falling asleep.

This is a form of conditioning that helps the person associate the bed with sleep and nothing else. Once the lack of sleep starts to make it easier to fall asleep, a more acceptable sleep schedule can be implemented.

A benefit that medical marijuana offers in this department is that it can aid these non-medicinal treatments. Unlike many sleep medications, it does not make sleep an urgent matter. A person can still go about their nighttime routine without fear of falling asleep before they are ready or being unable to wake up on time.

Relaxation techniques can improve sleep by reducing your anxiety at bedtime. Insomnia can make you worry or feel anxious about falling asleep. Those feelings make it even more difficult to sleep. Some people have general anxiety or stress that disrupts sleep. If you can use various techniques to control breathing, heart rate, muscle tension and your mood, you may feel more relaxed and be able to fall asleep easier.

Light therapy may be an option if you fall asleep early at night, causing you to wake up too early. Light therapy helps you adjust your sleep schedule so you stay awake longer. This can be achieved by spending time outdoors during light hours or using a light box for artificial light.

In some cases, sleeping pills may be prescribed to help the patient fall asleep and/or stay asleep longer. While the medication can help in the short term, relying on medications for sleep is not generally recommended for longer than a few weeks. Examples of prescription sleeping pills include eszopiclone, ramelteon, zaleplon and zolpidem.

Some sleep medications are only viable in the short term. It has been shown that long-term use of some sleep aids can cause dependency. Dependency on sleep aids is much like insomnia in that those who are dependent have difficulty falling asleep without medication. This can prolong your sleep issues, creating a cycle that’s difficult to break. Sleeping pills can also cause you to feel groggy during the day. Some users face an increased risk of falling.

Over-the-counter sleep aids may also cause side effects. These issues may include sleepiness during the day, dizziness, confusion, difficulty urinating and cognitive issues. Just like prescription sleep aids, these over-the-counter medications may cause you to rely on them to fall asleep.

Some people seek out other alternative treatments, many of which are pursued on their own without medical supervision. Melatonin is a supplement that some people rely on to fall asleep better. While generally considered safe, it’s unclear how effective it is or if it has any safety issues when used long-term.

Another supplement called valerian is also marketed as a sleep aid. The supplement has a bit of a sedating effect. There isn’t much research on valerian, so it’s unclear how effective it is or what type of side effects it may cause. Some people have suffered from liver damage after large doses or extended use, but it’s unclear if that damage came from the valerian itself.

Many herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so it’s important to proceed with caution with all of them, as these products could cause long-term problems.

Acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and meditation are also used by some people to improve their insomnia. Some of these techniques are used with other treatment options to make them more effective. They tend to have a relaxing effect on your body, which can ease you into sleep.

Why Medical Marijuana for Insomnia Is Effective

Research on cannabis and insomnia is somewhat limited due to federal regulations. Nevertheless, many studies show effectiveness when it comes to improving sleep with marijuana. Anecdotal evidence from individual users often shows good results when using marijuana to improve sleep.

medical cannabis

Medical cannabis can be a very efficient alternative treatment option for patients who suffer greatly from insomnia. Cannabis at night time is a very beneficial treatment that can directly alleviate symptoms of insomnia. Many patients report that, when compared to conventional sleep medications, cannabis works far better, is not habit-forming and leaves them feeling extremely well the next day.

It’s important to keep in mind what strain to use, though. Most Indica-based strains are more relaxing and meant for sleep, unlike Sativas, which are a bit more mentally stimulating.

In cases of primary insomnia, medical marijuana may be able to help individuals get more and/or better sleep. The added benefit is that it may be able to treat some of the underlying causes of insomnia for sufferers without primary insomnia as well.

Common causes of insomnia include stress, depression, anxiety, pain, restless legs syndrome, neurological disorders (cluster headaches, migraines, epilepsy, etc.) and parasomnia. Medical marijuana has shown promise in relieving stress, pain, anxiety, some neurological disorders and other sleep disorders that are co-morbid of insomnia.

In cases where medical marijuana can treat the underlying cause of insomnia, it will treat the insomnia itself in turn. Medical marijuana may also increase the severity or cause some of these problems, so monitoring by a medical professional to ensure optimal results is necessary.

Medical marijuana and marijuana in general have long been known to cause sleepiness. The right dose and the right active components of the marijuana plant can help individuals fall asleep and may help them fall back asleep after waking early, as well. Some research suggests that medical marijuana can even boost the quality of a person's sleep and reduce the frequency of nightmares in people with stress-related sleep problems.

Medical Cannabis for Insomnia Treatment

Choosing the right marijuana strain is an important part of the treatment process. Sativa-dominant strains tend to have an energizing and uplifting effect, which is not helpful when you want to fall asleep. Not everyone experiences the “upper” feeling, but it’s generally best to avoid Sativa strains when sleep is your goal.

sativa strain

Indica-dominant strains are typically the best choice for treating insomnia. Indica strains typically induce a sleepy feeling that helps you drift off and stay asleep.

The cannabinoid called cannabinol (CBN) tends to have a sedating effect, so choosing a strain high in CBN may be a good choice. Aged cannabis tends to have higher levels of CBN because the THC breaks down into CBN as it ages, making it a better choice for getting good sleep.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) also appears to be effective in treating insomnia. It may help you fall asleep faster with less difficulty and it may reduce the number of times you wake up in the middle of the night. THC can worsen anxiety symptoms when used in high doses. If your insomnia stems from anxiety or you feel anxiety as a result of your sleep issues, opt for a strain that’s low in THC.

Some strains that may work well for insomnia include:

  • Tahoe OG Kush
  • Purple Urkle
  • Godfather OG
  • Granddaddy Purple
  • Skywalker
  • God’s Gift
  • Ingrid
  • Blackberry Hashplant
  • Afghan Kush
  • Northern Lights
  • Ogre
  • 9 Pound Hammer
  • Big Bud

Finding your ideal strain of marijuana to treat insomnia sometimes takes a little experimenting. Your body may react differently to a particular marijuana strain than someone else’s. If you don’t find success with your first strain, experiment with other options. An experienced medical marijuana doctor is an important resource in finding a strain of marijuana that will work for your specific situation. The doctor can also recommend alternative strains if you don’t see the results you hoped for.

Another way you can experiment with marijuana and insomnia is by changing how you ingest the substance. Smoking, vaping and edibles are all viable options for helping you fall asleep, but they have some differences to consider.

Smoking and vaping weed both cause the effects to kick in right away. This can be beneficial if you’re experiencing severe pain that is contributing to your insomnia. Immediate pain relief makes you feel better overall so you can focus on sleep.

However, the effects of smoking and vaping wear off faster. That shorter period of relief may mean you wake up in the middle of the night when the effects stop. Smoking may also cause breathing issues due to higher levels of byproducts created by combustion.

Another option is consuming edibles infused with cannabis. You’ll have to wait anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours for the cannabinoids to take effect fully, so edibles won’t make you fall asleep immediately. The benefit of this option is that the effects last much longer than they do with smoking of vaping. If you use edibles to ingest your weed, you may be better able to sleep through the night due to the longer period of effectiveness.

You can use a combination of marijuana ingestion options to meet your specific needs at a given time. When you want fast relief, opt for smoking or vaping. When you can wait a little longer, opt for edibles to take advantage of the longer sleepiness effect.

Side Effects of Marijuana for Insomnia

Marijuana can cause a significant improvement in your insomnia, but it’s important to fully understand potential side effects. The effects are often mild when compared with traditional medications. Once the marijuana exits your body, those side effects disappear, so they aren’t long-lasting.

There is still debate about whether medical marijuana can cause dependency, but it’s much safer in terms of dosage and overdose than most pills. Some of the potential effects of using marijuana include:

  • A high feeling often described as euphoria, which is often more prominent in strains that are high in THC
  • increased hunger
  • Sleepiness, which is the desired effect when you’re dealing with insomnia
  • Red eyes
  • Dry mouth

In comparison, prescription sleeping pills are known to carry a high risk of dependency. With research into medical pot becoming more practically and legally viable by the day, insomnia patients will soon have even more reasons to eschew pharmacological remedies.

Learn More Today

If insomnia has you up at night, exploring marijuana as an affordable alternative treatment option may help you improve your rest. We can help you find medical marijuana doctors in all legal marijuana states so you can get expert advice on using cannabis to treat your insomnia.

Make your appointment now to find relief from insomnia so you can face your day feeling more rested and ready for anything.

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This information is not provided by medical professionals and is intended only to complement, and not to replace or contradict, any health or medical advice or information provided by healthcare professionals.  If you have any questions, please contact your doctor or other healthcare professional.

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