How Does Cannabis Affect Your Dreams?

As insomnia becomes more prevalent, many are turning to cannabis as a sleep aid. But what happens to your dreams when you use cannabis before bed? Find out in this article.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

In the stressful times of today, you may find getting some shut-eye more difficult than before. Don't worry, you are not alone – it is estimated that 35-40% of the world's adult population experience insomnia symptoms every year. A further 10-30% of this same group are thought to suffer from an insomnia disorder.

As insomnia can have many different causes, there are numerous ways that people have tried to manage it. Some of the most popular methods include making lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier and exercising, taking medication such as zolpidem and temazepam or a combination of both. Another option, which many find useful as a viable alternative, is consuming cannabis before bed.

The sedative properties of cannabis can be utilised to make falling asleep easier and it also promotes more 'deep sleep' than REM sleep. With our understanding of cannabis and its effects on sleep improving, researchers are turning their focus towards how cannabis impacts our dream-state. Do the psychoactive effects of the plant make our dreams more vivid? Do we dream at all under its influence? Are there any negatives to consuming cannabis before bed? Let's discuss it further.

What is dreaming?

The title of Billie Eilish's debut studio album poses an interesting question – 'when we all fall asleep, where do we go?'. In order to understand how cannabis can affect our dreams, let's first unravel what dreaming actually is and why it occurs.

Once you've fallen asleep, you will typically experience a sleep-wake cycle that consists of four stages. These stages will cycle through multiple times a night. Stage 1 is the briefest phase, lasting only 5-10 minutes per sleep. This stage is the transition period from wakefulness to sleep. In Stage 2, your heart rate and body temperature start to drop, as you experience a period of light sleep before entering deeper sleep. Most of your repeated sleep cycles will be spent in this stage (approximately 50% of your total sleep).

Stage 3 is known as the deep sleep stage. This is the stage of sleep you need the most of in order to feel refreshed in the morning. If you are woken up during this stage of sleep you will feel groggy and cognitively impaired for up to an hour. In this stage, tissue growth and repair occurs, as well as strengthening of the immune system.

Stage 4 is where you will experience REM sleep. REM stands for 'rapid-eye movement' and is characterised by the quick side-to-side eye movements that occur while in this stage of sleep. These movements are triggered by the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

REM sleep is the stage where dreaming occurs, which happens over approximately 2 hours per night. The reason why we dream remains a mystery even to this day and there are many theories which have been widely debated. Some believe that dreaming is the mind's way of processing emotions and solving problems. Others believe that dreaming is a necessary process in memory retention. Some simply believe that dreaming is actually pointless and achieves nothing for both the body and the mind.

Whatever the reason may be, what we do know is that the REM stage accounts for approximately 20% of our nightly sleep. This poses some questions on the importance of REM sleep for our health and daily functioning, as well as how substances, such as cannabis, can impact its frequency and duration.

How does cannabis affect REM sleep?

Due to the psychoactive effects cannabis can conjure up, one might assume that consumption before bed may lead to more vivid and intense dreams. But this might not be the case. If you are familiar with cannabis and have used it before bed, you may have experienced your dreams diminishing or being harder to recall. So why does this occur?

While the science isn't yet concrete, there are numerous studies which suggest that cannabis use can decrease or suppress REM sleep. The main reasoning behind why this occurs may be related to cannabis' influence on the other stages of the sleep cycle. While Stages 1 and 2 are seemingly unaffected, evidence has shown that cannabis use can increase the amount of time you spend in Stage 3 of the sleep cycle (aka deep sleep). Increasing the amount of deep sleep results in a reduction of REM sleep.

Whether this is good or bad remains unclear, and further research is being conducted in order to gain a better understanding of the consequences. This research involves testing different cannabinoids individually on how they can affect sleep. 

THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive cannabinoid and is the one associated most frequently with the suppression of REM sleep. This reduction of REM sleep eliminates most people's ability to dream, due to the insufficient amount of time spent in this stage of the sleep cycle. A reduction in REM sleep can be beneficial to some however, such as those who suffer from PTSD. A reduction in REM sleep correlates to a reduction in the nightmares they can often experience.

CBD (or cannabidiol) is a cannabinoid that is growing in popularity as a sleep aid, but what effects does it have on dreaming? While these effects are still poorly understood, dosage could be a major factor. There is evidence to suggest that high-dose CBD can increase the onset of REM sleep, while mid-range CBD decreases the onset of REM sleep. There is also anecdotal evidence from CBD consumers that have stated that it significantly impacts their dreams. Some experience vivid and intense dreams with the ability to recall them more clearly.

There is also the possibility that other minor cannabinoids and terpenes can work behind the scenes and impact dreams by way of the Entourage Effect. The research on these compounds and their role in affecting sleep is currently limited as the focus is mainly on the major cannabinoids (i.e. THC and CBD).

REM Rebound

If you are a frequent cannabis consumer who has ever taken a tolerance break, you may have noticed that in this time your dreams returned. Not only did they return though, they were more intense and bizarre as you experienced some Inception-like dreamscapes. This unusual experience is actually quite common and is due to a phenomenon known as REM rebound. 

While this rebound is useful in recouping REM sleep and dreams, it can also be quite disturbing. If you experience REM rebound, you are also likely to experience more nightmares, faster REM sleep onset and longer REM sleep cycles in order to repay the accrued dream debt. This is one of the many reasons heavy cannabis use is not recommended. If you are using cannabis as a sleep aid, it is important to avoid prolonged REM suppression and REM rebounding.

Although REM suppression can have some negative consequences, such as cognitive impairment and mood alterations, so can insomnia. It is important to maintain a balance between overall sleep and REM sleep and this can start with dosing. Microdosing has proven to be effective when beginning to use cannabis as a sleep aid, as low doses can result in quality sleep without excessive REM suppression. The dose can then be incrementally adjusted as needed.

Whether REM suppression has significant long-term consequences remains to be seen. While cannabis has many therapeutic benefits and has proven helpful in the treatment of insomnia and similar conditions, you must still be mindful of how else it can affect you. Pay close attention to how it affects your mind and body and if you still experience trouble sleeping or any adverse effects, then notify your doctor. 

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Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin

Josh is a Perth-based writer with a background in psychology and pharmacology. Through his studies he has gained an interest in abnormal psychology, mental health and psychopharmacology and has reported on these topics. Currently, his main focus is on cannabinoids and their medical potential.

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