You’d think getting blazed out of your mind would encourage crazy dreams, but the opposite is actually true. If fear is the mind-killer, as the stoner-classic novel Dune posits, then weed is the dream-killer. But when you stop smoking, your dreams may come back with a vengeance.
The relationship between cannabis and sleep is not thoroughly understood, but the exact effects of cannabis on dreams and the sleep cycle have recently come to light. Somnologists (sleep scientists, basically) have only recently delved into studying our favorite plant, but its already apparent that THC has a direct effect on the stages of sleep. There are even some great cannabis strains for sleep. This evidence helps us understand how smoking weed can cause you to dream less and sleep more deeply.
THE DIFFERENT STAGES OF SLEEP
Before we get too deep into understanding how smoking weed can cause you to dream less, let’s get on the same page as to exactly how the sleep cycle works. As of 2008, somnologists consider there to be four distinct and discrete stages of sleep. That number used to be five until somnologists realized that stages three and four were basically the same thing. These stages can be separated into two categories: rapid eye movement sleep, and non-rapid eye movement sleep.
While we sleep, our brains cycle through five different sleep stages, with the longest stages being deep sleep and REM sleep. Stage one is light sleep. This is when we’re still drifting in and out of consciousness and any little thing can wake us up. During stage one, you might feel sudden muscle cramps or the sensation that you’re falling.
Once we transition to stage 2, the electrical impulses in our brains slow down. During stage 3, what’s referred to as “delta waves” begin to appear with greater frequency. Delta waves are high-amplitude brain waves that originate in the thalamus or cortex and are associated with deep sleep. In stage 4, the brain is now exclusively producing delta waves and there is no eye movement or muscle activity.
To understand the effects of cannabis on sleep, the main thing you need to know is that there is a deep sleep phase (phase three) which refreshes your body and a rapid eye movement, or REM, phase which is when dreams happen. These are the two phases that are most affected by marijuana. By the way, all four of these phases take place in the span of about an hour and a half. The REM phase cycles back to phase one and the whole process starts over again, so you’ll experience four to six cycles on an average night.
HOW SMOKING MARIJUANA AFFECTS YOUR SLEEP
Like many scientific questions surrounding pot, scientists don’t have a perfect answer. But there is a lot of evidence showing that cannabis, and especially pot’s most famous chemical THC, reduces the amount of time we spend in rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep. This is the stage of sleep where we dream the most, so that may be the reason why many daily cannabis users report never remembering their dreams, according to Dr. Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist and one of the country’s leading cannabis researchers.
“One of the effects of THC is to suppress REM sleep, and it is the case that people either dream less or remember less while using cannabis,” Russo said.
A research study done by Pivik et al. looked at the effect of orally administered THC and a synthetic ortholog (similar compound) before sleep and measured the brainwaves with an electroencephalogram (EEG) to observe the relationship between marijuana and dreams. They also had the subjects (volunteers) have their brainwaves measured during drug-less sleep as a control.
What they found out about the question of whether smoking weed causes you to dream less or not was rather interesting! So what is the relationship between weed and dreams?
While there were relatively minor changes in the sleep activity of stages 1 – 3, they noticed that, in a dose-dependent manner, higher THC both increased stage 4 (deep sleep) whilst decreasing REM (dream sleep).
This study about marijuana and dreams answers two questions. Why does smoking before bed help us feel rested? More deep sleep. Why is that smoking weed causes you to dream less? Less REM sleep.
IS IT HEALTHY TO NOT HAVE DREAMS?
Despite the fact that REM sleep is restorative and has been linked to memory retention, there are a few benefits to skipping out on it. The main one being fewer nightmares, which is great news for PTSD patients. Nightmares, or night terrors, can prevent people from achieving a restful sleep, which can then have profound effects on waking behaviour, such as mood changes, trouble concentrating, low sex drive, weight gain and immune system suppression.
Pot’s dream-diminishing effects are extremely helpful for those who suffer from nightmares and/or insomnia.
But there are a few downsides to a shorter REM cycle. For one thing, the REM cycle serves an important purpose in the sleep cycle by providing a psychological “reboot” of sorts. By smoking marijuana, which suppresses REM sleep, you’re limiting the positive effect of this reboot. It’s also important to understand that the REM phase is often where our brains are when we wake up. By decreasing this phase, you are much more likely to wake up during the deep sleep stage, which will result in a groggy morning for you.
However, studies show that aside from some increased difficulty retaining information, a lack of REM sleep has little impact on our daytime behaviours, symptoms and overall health.
If you’re worried about missing out on your dreams, there’s a simple solution. “There is a ‘rebound’ period of high-REM sleep after cannabinoid therapies are discontinued,” says the My Health Freedom team. REM rebound occurs when you’ve been deprived of REM sleep. “If someone’s been up all night, for whatever reason, the next night the person will catch up on whatever sleep they missed,” says Lee. If there was no sleep, a priority will be placed on NREM sleep. But if you cheefed one too many doobers, passed out, and missed out on all your REM, your next sober night is likely to be a weird one.