Marijuana users often mention that one of their main uses of marijuana is for sleep, even clinical insomnia. Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep. People with insomnia may awaken during the night, sometimes multiple times, or they may wake up earlier than desired. Insomnia can be a serious problem and can greatly decrease the quality of life. Insomnia causes fatigue, which has physical and mental adverse effects.
There are many causes of insomnia. Depression, anxiety, and stress can lead to insomnia. Poor sleep habits, such as watching T.V. in bed, an irregular bedtime schedule, and too much light and/or noise can contribute. Health problems such as breathing problems, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and urinary frequency can also contribute. Certain medications that have stimulant side effects such as caffeine, alcohol, and lack of exercise can significantly affect sleep.
Insomnia has been treated with a multitude of remedies including prescription medications, such as Ambien and Sonata, benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Ativan, anti-depressants and anti-histamines. Over the counter medications such as Benadryl can help but often causes morning drowsiness the next day. Various “alternative” medications such as Valerian and Melatonin are helpful for some people. Better sleep habits such as turning off the T.V. at bedtime, limiting noise and light, not thinking about tomorrow’s problems at bedtime, and limiting caffeine and alcohol in the evenings can be helpful. Try to have a good bedtime routine and a consistent time to go to bed. Regular exercise is of course important, but try not to vigorously exercise within 3-4 hours of bedtime.
It is not clear when marijuana was first used for insomnia, but it certainly could have been as early as 2737 B.C.
Historical Usage of Medical Marijuana
The first recorded use of medical marijuana was in 2737 B.C. by Emperor Shen Neng of China. Medical Marijuana is mentioned in India in 2000-800 B.C. Pliny the Elder in Italy, 23-79 A.D. mentions medical marijuana. Greek Physician Galen (130-200 A.D.) prescribed marijuana. Marijuana is mentioned in the first Pharmacopeia of the East. In 1532 French physician Rabelais mentioned the medicinal effects of marijuana. In 1764 medicinal marijuana appears in “The New England Dispensary”. In the 1800’s marijuana plantations flourished in the South, in California, New York, and Kentucky. In 1850 cannabis was added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia and from 1850 to 1915 marijuana was widely used in the U.S. as a medicinal drug and could easily be purchased in pharmacies and general stores.
The western world was introduced to medical marijuana in the 19th century by Dr. William B. O’Shaugnessy who returned from India with cannabis. He encouraged physicians to prescribe it for many ailments including insomnia.
The Harrison Act in the U.S. in 1914 defined the use of marijuana as a crime.
Medical Marijuana Treatments for Insomnia
There are very few scientific studies of medicinal marijuana and insomnia. A study in 1973 showed that 20 mg of THC reduced falling asleep time by more than an hour. Interestingly, 20 mg of THC had a better effect than 30 mg and 20 mg had much smaller incidence of a “hang over” effect in the morning than 30 mg. A 1981 study with Cannabidiol (CBD) showed benefits for insomnia, without psychoactive “high” effects of THC. Finally a 2010 study comparing antidepressants (antidepressants are often prescribed for insomnia) to synthetic THC showed that synthetic THC was more effective for sleeplessness.
Medical marijuana may increase stage 3 sleep, which is the stage most important to the sleep deprived and decrease REM sleep which possibly helps with memory and symptoms of depression.
In sum, although true scientific studies of medical marijuana and insomnia are rare, the use of cannabis for sleeplessness dates back hundreds and perhaps several thousand years. Among marijuana users, insomnia is one of the most common uses of the drug.