Insomnia isn’t generally considered to be at the top of the list of ailments effectively treated by cannabis. Cancer, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, and depression are among the most cited and recognized conditions for which this herb provides relief.
There are two types of insomnia: Primary and secondary. Primary insomnia means it is not the result of another ailment or disease, whereas the secondary variety is produced by a condition like depression, chronic pain, anxiety, or some medications.
It is estimated that 10-30 percent of people suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives, with 10 percent reported to experience chronic and severe sleep deprivation. This condition affects people of all ages and is a condition with which tens of millions of North Americans can relate.
A basic understanding of the difference between sativa and indica strains reveals that a solid indica is one of the best avenues to a good night’s rest — especially for those suffering from chronic pain, generalized anxiety, or PTSD.
Although cannabis has been used for thousands of years for a wide variety of conditions, it was prescribed in the United States as recently as the early 20th century, prior to federal-level prohibition in 1937. In the 19th century, Dr. William O’Shaugnessy recommended to his fellow physicians and patients the use of cannabis for the treatment of insomnia (something he learned about in India).
Although insomnia is not generally life threatening and its commonality relegates it, for low-grade sufferers, to a mere nuisance, it’s often the result of countless diseases involving chronic pain and stress. Because sleep is so critical to a healthy body — especially for those suffering from a severe or terminal condition — lack of good rest can exacerbate one’s condition or simply prevent improvement.
Better than Pharmaceuticals
Most people have a spouse, friend, or family member who consumes a drug like Ambien, Rozerem, or Lunesta in an effort to get enough sleep each night. Unfortunately, these drugs often cause undesired side effects. What are the benefits of cannabis over their synthesized pharmaceutical siblings? It conveys none of the addiction, depression, anxiety, blurred vision, or other side effects commonly associated with prescription drugs.
Drugs such as Xanax and Valium, while marginally effective for some patients, are habit forming. About eight percent of those taking such drugs for insomnia become addicted to them. Cannabis, of course, carries no risk of addiction or overdose.
Indica strains, which are excellent sleep inducers and enhancers, also typically deliver the munchies. Those in legal states seeking to lose weight or prevent a stomach ache should consult with their local dispensary in an effort to obtain a hybrid strain that contains a sufficient amount of the terpene myrcene to deliver the necessary indica effect (if your budtender is not familiar with myrcene, help them learn more).
Myrcene is the terpene that determines if a particular strain is indica or sativa (research has proven it functions like a junior-level cannabinoid). Because indica strains are vastly more popular and common due to the fact that this species (or sub-species, as some picky readers will point out) yields significantly more bud per plant, those suffering from insomnia are lucky; indica-dom and full-on indica strains are much more common than sativa-dom and full sativa varieties.
Relatively few studies have been conducted regarding the efficacy of cannabis for insomnia and other sleep disorders. Until cannabis is removed from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, most research will continue to be performed in countries such as Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Israel.
A 1973 study conducted in the United States and published in the journal Psychopharmacology revealed that THC, administered in a 20 mg dose, helped patients fall asleep, reducing the time required to achieve sleep by more than an hour. The study concluded:
“THC was found to significantly decrease the time it takes to fall asleep in physically healthy insomniacs.”
A 1981 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and conducted using human subjects reported that 160 mg of cannabidiol, or CBD, helped patients gain “significantly more” sleep than a placebo.
A 1986 study conducted by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and published in Pharmacological Review found that THC, in doses of 10, 20, and 30 mg, helped patients fell asleep faster.
A 2010 human trial study conducted at McGill University in Montreal and published in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia reported that nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid, was effective as a sleep aid for those suffering from fibromyalgia. Researchers concluded:
“Nabilone is effective in improving sleep in patients with fibromyalgia and is well tolerated.”
Causal Conditions and Cannabinoids
It is estimated that roughly 40 percent of those who suffer from insomnia do so as the result of a psychological condition such as depression or anxiety. Because cannabis is such an effective treatment for these ailments, patients get the dual benefits of treating their core condition while also combating a negative symptom like lack of sleep.
Most consumers understand that it is the cannabinoid THC in cannabis that results in the euphoric high delivered by the plant. While cannabinoids like THC and CBD have been shown to help treat insomnia, for sleep issues specifically, CBN seems to be the most effective cannabinoid.
Some have theorized that endocannabinoid deficiency, which may cause a large number of diseases and ailments, may sometimes be the source of insomnia and why patients who consume phytocannabinoids from marijuana gain relief.
Regular use of cannabis has been shown to decrease the dreams experienced by users. This can be especially effective for those with extreme anxiety or a condition like PTSD, in which painful or traumatic memories may manifest themselves as nightmares.
Black Market Woes
Unfortunately, patients living in areas without even medical legalization are faced with the black market, meaning they’re fortunate to get any medicine at all, let alone the right strain. This “luck of the draw” situation means those in search of a powerful indica from which they can gain a solid night’s sleep may often be out of luck. Many strains available on the black market are hybrids, some of which may have too much sativa to deliver the desired results.
Those in states with safe and legal access to medical dispensaries have the luxury of asking their budtender for the best strains to knock them out and give them a good six to eight hours of sleep.
Best Strains for Insomnia
Choosing the correct strain for insomnia is critical to getting a good night’s sleep. Strains that contain too much sativa will obviously not result in the desired effect. However, some sativas, such as Jack Herer and Catpiss, are known to produce a “crash” following the initial high that may help patients who are willing to wait for the initial high to dissipate.
- Ingrid: Indica strain that results in drowsiness 60-90 minutes following consumption.
- Purple Urkle: Indica that results in extreme relaxation and sleep.
- Godfather OG: Another indica that is excellent for promoting sleep. Also good for pain relief.
- Blackberry Hashplant: Indica strain that is excellent for pain relief and extreme relaxation that leads to sleep.
- Bubblegun: Hybrid strain that delivers extreme relaxation that may lead to sleep.
- Kushberry: Indica that is known for increasing appetite and promoting sleep.
When Cannabis Is Unavailable
Cannabis and its culture are the subject of countless social memes and institutionalized jokes. The serious side of the issue, however, is that real patients in prohibitionist states seeking not to get high, but to gain true medicinal relief, are in the very desperate position of accepting whatever they can find.
For those who are temporarily unable to obtain cannabis, one good solution is herbal tinctures. Kava kava and valerian are excellent sleep aids. Kava kava helps put one to sleep; valerian keeps users in deep sleep (REM). The combination of the two may be an effective solution to one’s sleep deprivation woes when cannabis isn’t available — or one has only a sativa.
This post was originally published on July 22, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.