Updated on September 10, 2018.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
If you find that an aging loved one has difficulties sleeping, they are not alone. This often overlooked affliction affects almost 40 percent of older people. A variety of factors can cause it, ranging from insomnia to noisy living conditions. Although some elderly patients resort to taking sleeping pills, these have the potential to produce a variety of adverse side effects and cause the user to develop an addiction. For that reason, it’s imperative that our elderly have a more natural alternative. The answer could be medical marijuana.
Although cannabis has carried a negative stigma for years, more and more people — including seniors — are giving it a try. This is mostly because marijuana is now legal for medical purposes in more than half of the states in the U.S. The fact that governing bodies are recognizing its legitimacy is encouraging even those who would typically shy away from anything to do with cannabis.
Insomnia is a real issue for elderly patients. It causes many older sleepers to experience extreme sleep deprivation that can lead to adverse side effects in both their mood and health. There are many causes of elderly insomnia. For some, their internal clock has adjusted over the years, making them wake up earlier in the day even if they stayed up late the night before. Others live in assisted living facilities or nursing homes where noisy neighbors keep them up throughout the night.
However, the main reason most seniors suffer from sleep deprivation is because they are struggling with health or psychiatric issues that affect the quality of their sleep. Sometimes, it’s a painful or debilitating condition or symptom, while other times it’s a mood disorder or the increasing concerns associated with aging. Some of the leading causes of elderly insomnia include:
The most critical thing healthcare professionals are trying to provide to these senior patients is relief from sleepless nights so they can more fully enjoy their golden years.
How Marijuana Aids Sleep
There are two main components responsible for most of marijuana’s therapeutic benefits: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). These two cannabinoids have an interesting effect on our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is an extensive network of receptors found in every major bodily system. Because cannabinoids bind to these receptors, patients experience a variety of effects from marijuana. It can positively influence pain management, digestion, mood and sleep patterns.
Ingesting cannabis before bedtime has been shown by multiple studies to help patients fall asleep, as well as experience a higher quality of sleep. Marijuana that is high in THC reduces the amount of time spent in REM sleep, which is the cycle where dreaming occurs. Many believe that when users spend less time dreaming, it allows them to stay in a deep sleep state for longer. It should be noted, however, that REM sleep is an essential aspect of the sleep cycle that helps cognitive function and healthy immunity. This means that too much time spent without it could impair sleep quality over time.
Benefits Seniors Experience by Using Cannabis as a Sleep Aid
The most beneficial aspect of cannabis-based sleep medications is that they’re allowing senior patients to break their dependence on prescription sleep aids and opioids. Opioid addiction is a rising concern among elderly patients, with many falling victim to their addictive qualities. Although opiates and sleep prescriptions help seniors manage pain and sleeping difficulties, they can also increase the risk of mental confusion, falling and, most dangerously, dependence leading to addition.
Marijuana, on the other hand, is far less addictive. And, to date, cannabis has caused zero reported deaths, making it far less dangerous than pain pills and sleep medications. Some seniors using prescription sleep aids fall into a coma and die in their sleep. This is not a risk for those who medicate with cannabis.
Marijuana also treats a variety of conditions and symptoms beyond insomnia. This includes disorders known to contribute to sleeplessnesses, such as conditions that cause chronic pain or muscle cramping.
Choosing the Right Strain
Selecting a marijuana strain is similar to finding a designer tea blend. There are hundreds of different strains, each with its own combination of cannabinoids and terpenes that produce the desired side effects. In general, you’ll want to go with an indica strain, as these provide a soothing, relaxing side effect. THC has also been shown to promote sleep better than CBD. However, if you want to avoid the psychoactive side effects associated with THC, you may want to find a strain that marries the two cannabinoids in a more even ratio.
Some strains known for their sedating side effects include:
Northern Lights (Indica)
Granddaddy Purple (Indica)
Afghan Kush (Indica)
Tahoe OG Kush (Hybrid)
God’s Gift (Indica)
No two people are the same, which means you may have a different reaction to these strains than others. That’s why it’s important to experiment with different types of strains and dosage under the supervision of your doctor.
Contact a Marijuana Doctor to Receive Your Cannabis Recommendation
If you are an elderly patient struggling with sleepless nights or have parents or grandparents who regularly deal with insomnia, then medical marijuana might be an appropriate treatment option. The first step to medicating with cannabis is contacting a marijuana doctor for a recommendation. First, they will assess your condition to determine if this is a treatment approach that would benefit you. If they recommend cannabis, they can also help you find the right strain and dosage to treat your symptoms.