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Cannabis and dreaming: the marijuana impact

How does consuming marijuana affect your sleep?
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Whether you pop a gummy before bed or ritually pack a bowl as a rite of passage into your weekend, it is common knowledge that a lot of us use cannabis to take the edge off - to feel lighter. Most of us are familiar with that feeling of just wanting to float into bed and knock out. Sleep quality is subjective to a multitude of things beyond the consumption of cannabis, and dream quality is no different. A lot of stoners claim that they don’t remember their dreams. Yet, some still claim to. So what’s the deal? Of course, it is hard to determine exactly - tolerance, frequency, strain, even age - all these factors certainly affect how cannabis affects your sleep quality and dreams. What we do know, however, is that cannabis represses our REM (rapid eye movement) cycle. Since it is in this cycle that we tend to dream vividly, it makes sense that our ability to access the dream landscape will be affected. But is dreaming really that important?

Our dreams can indicate a multitude of thoughts and emotions processing in our minds. Many of us go about our day barely acknowledging the dream we had and some of us may even change the course of our lives based on a few hours in the dream realm. There is something unequivocally powerful in the dreamscape that most of us are aware of, but perhaps have not fully explored. Dreaming is often referred to as a byproduct of sleep, but it is also so much more. Dreams can be like your desktop - full of random screenshots, a web browser full of interesting articles and more random youtube holes, and folders of pictures or videos. I almost imagine that when we lay our heads to sleep and hop into the dreamscape, we’re entering some kind of cosmic server room of our lives, as we live in both our physical reality as well as in our imagination. Dreams are, in some sense, a portal into our subconscious.

Aside from the entertaining stories that you’ll be able to share the next morning, scientists have discovered that dreaming and sleep have very positive effects on our physiology. Not only does it help to lower the risk of Alzheimer's, but also helps assimilate our memories and helps us to learn faster. Dr. Matthew Walker, a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and author of the book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, shares that dreaming can be like therapy. He says, “REM sleep is the only time when our brain is completely devoid of the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline. At the same time, key emotional and memory-related structures of the brain are reactivated during REM sleep as we dream. This means that emotional memory reactivation is occurring in a brain free of a key stress chemical, which allows us to re-process upsetting memories in a safer, calmer environment.” The idea of “sleeping on it” certainly takes on a deeper meaning. As we sleep and dream, our brains have the capacity to creatively imagine new solutions (and some that are rather comically unhelpful), revise associations of our lived experience, our learnings as well as reveal our feelings about them. The brain is then able to consolidate memories and integrate them into the vast server room of our mind. Fragments of our memories, feelings, and imagination are synthesized, and a narrative unfolds as our brains try to make sense of all of it. In a nutshell, this is what our dreams are.

Assuming that you are not experiencing chronic nightmares or other disruptions like sleep paralysis or insomnia that has created more anxiety and restlessness, it would appear that there are more pros than cons to REM cycle-specific dreaming, because it indicates that you are getting high-quality sleep, therefore translating the benefits into our daily life. It goes without saying that getting good sleep is supportive to your life in almost every aspect - better moods, effective productivity, and metabolism in your physiology, just to name a few. Another study done by Walker and his colleagues examined participants' were more successful in their ability to read emotions in others' faces as well as identify positive emotions, ideal for long-term survival, rather than in a heightened state of negativity or fight or flight. It would appear that getting high-quality REM cycle sleep can also foster our ability to be empathic and connect with others. 

So what does this mean for those heavy marijuana users? It is still unclear how REM cycle dreaming and cannabis consumption positively or negatively affect one another, however, it sheds some light on why some may experience phenomenally vivid dreams on a tolerance break, also known as REM rebound. The brain naturally craves REM sleep and almost collects a debt when it isn’t able to. Dreams can be exponentially more fantastical, vivid, and/or strange. 

All this isn’t to say that a person's ability to learn new skills or process emotions is completely hindered due to their usage of cannabis - we are all unique individuals in various stages in our journey and using cannabis for different things. I can say for myself that in addition to “sleeping on it,” smoking or using CBD tinctures have also helped me in processing past experiences and supported less reactivity toward those events. I’ve also been able to soothe bouts of anxiety felt before bedtime during stressful periods and help myself not be so hard on myself when I learn something new. Ultimately, understanding how cannabis affects you in the short and long term, how you use it and how frequently you use it to favor a balance between getting REM sleep and using cannabis as medicine to support relaxation in your tool kit will be the most supportive. 

Regardless, practicing good sleep hygiene regardless of where you lie on the stoner spectrum and how you dream is always going to be positive. Here are some tips:

  • Respecting your circadian rhythm - use blue light filter glasses if you need to work at night or like watching TV late night.
  • Maintaining a sleep routine - wake and sleep around the same time as best you can. (Yes, even on weekends).
  • Limit naps.
  • Keep body temperature cooler when sleeping, but keep your hands and feet warm.
  • Dim overhead lights in the evening to trigger melatonin production.
  • Limit caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
  • Eat dinner at least 4 hours before bedtime.