Have you ever experienced horrible nightmares that you would rather have never seen? Or are your dreams so bright and vivid that you go to bed expecting a new adventure in the dream world? They say marijuana can prevent dreams, whether they are good or bad, but is it really true? And if it is, what can we do about it?
Not every marijuana strain makes you sleepy, but some indicas, especially the ones that are reported to have a strong sedative effect, can really knock you out for several hours. Can this kind of sleep be so deep that you do not even have dreams? First, let us have a look at sleep cycles.
During the night, an average person has four-five cycles of sleep. Each cycle is about 90-100 minutes and usually consists of four stages: N1, N2, N3, and REM. Each stage has a specific function.
The N1 stage is a light sleep, a special state when you still can react to the environment. It lasts for 5-10 minutes. You are falling asleep, and all of your body starts relaxing: your heart rate slows down, your thoughts begin to jumble together (or you may get stuck on a single thought on repeat), your eye movement slows. At this point, it is very easy to wake up: usually, someone's touch or even a thought that your boss may see you sleeping at your working desk is enough for you to get back out of your drowsiness.
During the N2 stage (about 20 minutes), all of your thoughts are too quiet to hear them, your brainwaves begin to slow down, preparing you for being immersed into a deep sleep. Your eye movement stops, your body is completely relaxed.
The N3 stage is what we call deep sleep or slow-wave sleep. This stage is characterized by minimum brain activity, that is why it is very difficult for a person to react to the stimuli, even if it is your morning alarm ringing at maximum volume. The stage lasts for about 30-40 minutes, though it may depend on the age of a person (the older the person, the shorter the N3 stage). This is the time for your body to repair its muscles and tissues, which is especially important if you had an intense workout during the day. This stage is extremely important if you want to feel refreshed in the morning.
Before switching to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your mind comes back to the N2 phase for a while to prepare your mind and body to see dreams. Your mind becomes active again, your eyes are moving, your breath becomes irregular, blood pressure rises, and your heart rate increases. This is the time when you are closest to consciousness. If you wake up in the middle of this stage, you will remember your dreams bright and clear.
During the first cycle, REM sleep lasts only about five minutes. The more cycles you are going through in one night, the longer the REM sleep becomes and the shorter the deep sleep gets. Sometimes, the REM stage in the morning can last up to one hour, that is why your morning dreams are usually the brightest.
First of all, marijuana does not steal your dreams. It can indeed reduce REM stage, but the dreaming never disappears completely. The amounts of time spent in N3 and REM are closely related, therefore, if your REM shortens, the deep dream stage (N3) extends. That is why the chances to wake up while you are in your N3 stage are higher, and as a result, you may experience sluggishness and mental fog after waking up.
Numerous studies show that marijuana facilitates falling asleep and prolongs the N3 phase. More than this, it can reduce the density of rapid eye movements during your REM sleep, which on one hand, can make your dreaming less bright, and on the other hand, can help your sleep be more restful.
We need to note that most studies on REM sleep and marijuana were exploring the effect of THC, which is known for its sedative properties. Yet, very few studies looked into other compounds of marijuana, such as CBD or CBN. However, some of them have shown that CBD may have alerting properties and may increase awake activity during sleep. It means that marijuana strains with a high CBD level may have an absolutely opposite effect on your sleep comparing to high-THC strains.
We still do not know for sure why we need REM sleep. It is believed that deep sleep is what is vitally important for our well-being, as this is the time our body gets energy and restores strength. If a person is deprived of proper sleep, the brain prioritizes deep sleep over REM sleep. Therefore, it is not clear yet whether the effect of cannabis on the REM stage is actually harmful.
At the same time, this effect of marijuana may be extremely helpful for those who are haunted by nightmares, especially if they experience post-traumatic stress disorder. These people usually have bright, vivid dreams accompanied by strong negative emotions (fear, panic, etc.). This can significantly affect the mood for the rest of the day or make it difficult to fall back to sleep.
In any case, whether you want to get rid of your dreams or want them back, you should know that the effect of marijuana on dreaming is not permanent. Once a regular user stops consuming cannabis, they experience the so-called REM rebound effect—the REM stage becomes longer, and the dreams get more vivid.