Does Cannabis Affect Your Dreams or Cause Nightmares?
While many people smoke cannabis or consume it in other ways, there are still many common doubts regarding its consumption. Among those is whether it will affect your dreams or even cause nightmares. The good news is that you are unlikely to experience nightmares from smoking cannabis, and it may relieve them. However, many people, although not all, do experience changes in their dreams when they start or stop consuming marijuana.
Understanding the Sleep Cycle
To better understand how cannabis can affect your dreams, you need some basic understanding of the human sleep cycle.
In Stage 1, you experience light sleep and are easy to rouse. This stage usually just lasts 5-10 minutes. While at this point, you may experience a falling sensation or sudden muscle cramps.
Stage 2 starts the transition to deeper sleep. This includes your heartbeat slowing down slightly and your body temperature decreasing a bit. Your brain’s electrical impulses also slow down.
Stage 3 involves deep sleep. If someone tries to wake you up during this stage, it is harder to do so, and you will likely feel disoriented and dizzy for a little bit afterward. This stage also includes an increase in delta-waves. These are brain waves of high amplitude that start in the cortex or thalamus and are linked to deep sleep.
Stage 4 or N-REM
Stage 4 is when your brain only produces delta waves. During this step, you will not experience muscle activity or eye movement. Stage 4 is not always included when distinguishing the various sleep stages.
Instead, some accounts will include N-REM or NREM sleep. Some dreams occur during NREM sleep, and these tend to be the more boring dreams.
REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” a key feature of those who experience REM sleep. REM sleep is where most dreaming occurs, and it usually starts around 90 minutes after falling asleep. The dreams you experience during REM sleep tend to be the ones that are more interesting, colorful, emotional, and vibrant.
During REM sleep, your breathing will be irregular, your eyes will rapidly move in various directions, your muscles will be temporarily paralyzed, and your heart rate will increase.
REM sleep is not constant. Instead, it comes and goes in a series of cycles, each of which is longer than the previous one. The first REM cycle is usually just ten minutes, but your final phase may be an hour long.
In adults, REM sleep only accounts for around 20 percent of your nightly rest. By contrast, about 50 percent of babies’ sleep is REM.
Consuming Marijuana Affects REM, Which Impacts Dreams
With that information in mind, you are better equipped to start understanding the impact of marijuana consumption on dreams. Research indicates that consuming cannabis affects your REM sleep patterns. Since REM sleep is when you dream, this has a direct impact on dreams.
The Famous 1976 Study
Much of the information regarding marijuana and REM sleep comes from a study from 1976 that looked at how THC and marijuana extract affected sleep patterns. More research has been completed since then, but it served as a jumping point and is still widely cited and referenced.
The study found that consuming between 70 and 210 milligrams of THC gave nearly identical results to consuming pure THC. In either case, those who consumed the THC daily would have reduced REM sleep. When participants stopped their daily THC consumption, this led to a very high increase in the rapid eye movements associated with REM sleep.
The Results in Simple Terms
Mainly, the study found that consuming marijuana reduces REM sleep. Since most dreams occur during REM sleep, this results in a lack of dreams for most consumers.
Later Research Supports It as Well
Although the original study took place in 1976, it is still highly regarded since the results have been confirmed in later studies. A 2008 study in Sleep discovered that as many as 76 percent of heavy cannabis users who suddenly stopped their use experienced sleep disturbances, including poor sleep quality, strange dreams, and insomnia. In 2001, the Archives of General Psychiatry published a study that had mixed results, showing that sometimes those who stopped consuming marijuana would experience strange dreams, but this was not always the case.
In 2009, another study indicated that a synthetic cannabinoid, nabilone, has the potential to reduce or completely stop nightmares associated with PTSD dramatically.
The Research Is Not Conclusive
It is also essential to keep in mind that while the research so far strongly suggests that consuming marijuana reduces your REM sleep and, therefore, your dreams, it is not yet conclusive. Some of the results have been mixed, and it seems to somewhat depend on the person and the circumstances, at least in early research.
This means that if you choose to consume cannabis to stop your dreams, you may or may not notice the desired effects.
Is It Healthy to Skip REM Sleep From Cannabis Consumption?
Since the evidence shows that many people who consume cannabis skip REM sleep, or at least experience a reduction in it, it leads to the question as to whether this is healthy.
Benefits of REM Sleep
REM sleep is associated with some health benefits, including overall restoration and memory retention. However, scientists are not clear on the purpose of REM sleep yet.
Benefits of Skipping REM Sleep
At the same time, there are some benefits associated with skipping REM sleep. The most significant advantage is for those who suffer from insomnia or nightmares. If you do not experience REM sleep, then you are significantly less likely to dream, so your nightmares are unlikely to occur.
Scientists Have Theories, Not Certainties
REM sleep is still an area where scientists are working to gather more information and knowledge. They are not sure about the specific purpose of REM sleep, although there are theories.
One prevailing theory is that REM sleep helps us process emotional memories, serving purposes related to forgetting and remembering. To understand this theory, you need to have a grasp of the difference between emotional and declarative memory. These are the two types of memories that traumatic events inscribe in the brain. Declarative memory is the facts and details of what occurred, including who, what, where, when, and how. It sometimes includes why, as well. By contrast, emotional memory refers to your feelings during the event.
Right after a traumatic event, your emotional and declarative memories will be jumbled together. It is impossible to separate the feelings and details at this stage. Experts believe that REM sleep and its associated dreams give you the chance to separate emotions and events so that you can move on after the pain.
REM Rebound Also Occurs
For those with concerns about missing out on REM sleep, there is also a phenomenon known as REM rebound. If you miss REM sleep due to cannabis consumption or something similar, then your next night that is sober will include more REM sleep to make up for it. This results in the crazy dreams that are common when you suddenly stop using cannabis. This also contrasts with times when you do not sleep at all, in which case your body will prioritize NREM sleep.
REM rebound does not only happen after consuming cannabis; it can also occur after heavy drinking. Among people who do not drink regularly, alcohol will suppress REM sleep and reduce sleep latency for the night’s first half. After the alcohol leaves your system, the REM rebound will occur. In other words, REM rebound is why people experience odd dreams after a night of drinking. This effect related to drinking only happens if you consume alcohol infrequently.
Some People Use Cannabis to Reduce Nightmares
Because of this ability to reduce dreams, it is common for people who suffer from frequent nightmares to turn to cannabis as a potential solution, including when the nightmares are part of PTSD.
Poor Sleep From Nightmares Can Have Serious Consequences
Unless you have experienced serious and frequent nightmares, you may not realize the extent to which they can be a significant health concern. People who deal with recurring nightmares are likely to struggle to fall asleep and to stay asleep. They will likely wake up from a nightmare and face challenges falling back asleep.
A lack of sleep in the long-term can reduce reaction time as well as mental alertness. This makes it hard to perform complex tasks and makes it dangerous to drive. Long-term deficiencies in sleep can also increase the risk of certain conditions, including stroke and heart attack.
In the short-term, a lack of sleep can also result in changes to mood, difficulty concentrating, suppression of the immune system, and a lowered sex drive.
Keep in mind that having the occasional nightmare is entirely normal. They typically only require attention if you get the lower quality sleep that results in difficulty concentrating and functioning or fatigue during the day. If your nightmares lead to persistent anxiety throughout the day, make you dread going to sleep, or make it hard to go back to sleep, they are also a concern.
The Issues With Traditional Sleep Aids
Various pharmaceutical sleep aids are designed to help people sleep better, including overcoming nightmares. However, they tend to come with some issues.
Many of these pharmaceutical sleep aids are unsafe to combine with other medications. They also commonly come with significant side effects, from drowsiness during the day to memory problems, difficulty balancing, and muscle tremors. They also carry a risk of an overdose, which can be fatal if the patient does not consume them as directed.
Some people will also undergo therapy in the case of nightmares due to mental health. At the same time, PTSD patients can use imagery rehearsal therapy to create a better ending to recurring nightmares.
Cannabis Does Not Have Those Side Effects
By comparison, cannabis is not associated with those types of significant side effects. This makes it a very tempting alternative to try.
Marijuana Can Reduce Many of the Common Nightmare Causes
There are many reasons that people may experience more than an occasional nightmare. Some of the risk factors include anxiety and stress, sleep deprivation, using drugs or alcohol, taking certain medications, experiencing trauma, mental illness, genetics, heart problems, or neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s.
There is some early evidence that medical marijuana can help with many of these factors, such as overcoming abuse, reducing anxiety and stress, falling asleep and staying asleep, lowering blood pressure to relieving some heart-related symptoms, and improving mood problems associated with mental illness.
Always Consult Your Doctor
Remember that you should never stop a medication suddenly and should certainly never do so without consulting your doctor. Some medicines can have harmful and serious side effects if you stop them suddenly, and they may require careful supervision or slowly reducing the dose.
Additionally, you should always confirm that cannabis will not interact with your other current medications or medical conditions. Your doctor can help you establish this.
Remember That Everyone Is Different
You should also remember that everyone is different, and the research regarding cannabis and sleep is still inconclusive. This means that you may notice a reduction in nightmares when you consume it, but you may even have them. On a related note, if you suddenly stop your cannabis consumption, you may or may not experience an increase in dreams, including odd ones.
The Bottom Line
Consuming marijuana should not give you nightmares, and it may help you avoid nightmares or dreams in general. This happens via the fact that marijuana use limits your REM sleep, which is when the majority of dreaming occurs, especially the more intense dreams. You should keep in mind, however, that when you stop consuming marijuana, you will experience REM rebound and spend longer in REM sleep, resulting in even more dreams than usual and potentially odder ones than you are used to having. While this is the general rule of thumb, not everyone reacts the same, and some people do not experience any changes to their sleep patterns from consuming marijuana.