The Complicated Relationship Between Cannabis and Insomnia

The Complicated Relationship Between Cannabis and Insomnia

The History and Science of Cannabis

If you’ve tried cannabis, you may have experienced some of its side effects. Perhaps you got a bit peckish and had the local pizza shop on speed dial, or maybe you got a bit sleepy. So, isn’t it a no-brainer that cannabis can help us sleep better? Well, as a sleep physiologist, I’ve been researching this topic, and I’m here to talk about why cannabis for treating insomnia is complicated.

Humans have been using cannabis for at least 5,000 years. It has been used for various purposes, including making clothes, building materials, and in religious ceremonies. However, it has only been in the past 100 or so years that we have started understanding the science of cannabis and its effects. The cannabis plant contains hundreds of chemical compounds, including the well-known cannabinoids. The most well-known cannabinoid is Delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is primarily known for its intoxicating properties. On the other hand, Cannabidiol (CBD) is non-intoxicating. Scientists have also discovered other cannabinoids that are produced by our own bodies, known as endocannabinoids.

What’s exciting is that our understanding of cannabis and cannabinoids has rapidly increased in the past 20 years since its legalization for medicinal use in some countries. There is now solid evidence that cannabinoids can help treat rare types of epilepsy, nausea and vomiting associated with cancer treatments, chronic pain, muscle stiffness associated with multiple sclerosis, and appetite improvement in patients with HIV/AIDS. There is also some evidence that cannabinoids may be helpful in reducing anxiety associated with public speaking.

The Prevalence and Symptoms of Insomnia

Insomnia is the most prevalent sleep disorder, affecting a third of the population, with 15% experiencing chronic symptoms that last longer than three months. The symptoms of insomnia can vary, including trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, or experiencing both. Even if you haven’t experienced insomnia yourself, you can probably relate to the feelings of not having enough sleep and how it impacts you the next day.

Insomnia can have a significant impact on daily life. It can affect patience, concentration, alertness, memory, and contribute to conditions like anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, there is a good treatment for insomnia called cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), which is typically done under the guidance of a specialist sleep psychologist. However, it can take weeks to see benefits from CBTI, and it can be difficult to access.

The Potential of Cannabinoids for Treating Insomnia

Given that cannabis has been used for sleep for thousands of years, it’s no surprise that some surveys report up to 47% of people who use cannabis medicinally are using it to improve their sleep. Our team at the Center of Sleep Science at the University of Western Australia recently conducted a world-first study in collaboration with Ziler Therapeutics to investigate the effects of a cannabinoid medication on chronic insomnia.

In this study, 24 participants took a cannabinoid medication containing THC, CBD, and another cannabinoid called CBN for two weeks. They also took a placebo for two weeks in a randomized order. The participants’ sleep was measured using a wristwatch-type device and more sophisticated measures in a sleep laboratory. The results showed that when people took the cannabinoid medication, they slept, on average, 33 minutes longer and were awake for 10 minutes less each night compared to when they took the placebo. Participants also reported feeling better rested in the morning.

However, before jumping to any conclusions, it’s important to consider some factors. Firstly, cannabis remains illegal in most countries, so it is not recommended to use it in an unregulated manner. Secondly, smoking cannabis, like smoking cigarettes, is associated with negative long-term health consequences, so safer consumption methods should be considered. Additionally, when using medicinal cannabis, the concentrations of cannabinoids are known, ensuring a more controlled dosage. However, individual responses to cannabinoids can vary, so what may work for one person may not work for another.

The Need for More Research

While the results of our study are encouraging, it’s important to note that it was just one study using one combination of cannabinoids and a small group of extensively screened participants. To establish the true benefits and safety of using cannabinoids for treating insomnia, we need more research involving larger and more diverse groups of people, using different formulations and combinations of cannabinoids.

It’s crucial to remember that consuming too much cannabis can have negative effects on physical and mental health. The risks associated with cannabis use, especially in medicinal contexts, still need to be thoroughly studied to ensure its safe and effective use. Much of our current understanding of these risks comes from studying people who use cannabis recreationally, so further research is needed to explore the effects of cannabis or cannabinoids in the doses and populations that use it medically.


Answering the question of whether we should use medicinal cannabis to treat sleep disorders, including insomnia, is not simple. While there is growing evidence suggesting the potential benefits of cannabinoids for improving sleep, more research is needed to fully understand their efficacy and safety. The early data from our study is promising, but we must continue to generate more evidence and gain a better understanding of the science behind cannabis and its effects on sleep.

For those hoping to use cannabis to improve their sleep, it’s important to wait for the evidence to grow and for regulations to ensure safe and controlled use. In the meantime, if you struggle with insomnia, it’s best to seek out established treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia, under the guidance of a specialist sleep psychologist. Sleep well!