Marijuana for Sleep Could Backfire

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A recent study concludes that using a lot of weed as a teenager can boost the risk of insomnia as an adult

Some people rely on marijuana to help them fall asleep. In fact, in a 2018 survey of 1,000 users in Colorado, 74% said they use it as a sleep aid, according to an April 14 article in U.S. News & World Report.

But it may not work as well as people think, especially for teenagers. “There is a lot of research on sleep and cannabis, but it’s a little mixed,” said Evan Winiger, a graduate student in behavior genetics, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, and co-author of a study that analyzed the sleep habits and history of marijuana use among 1,882 teens in Colorado. 

The study found that about one-third of the participants who started using marijuana before the age of 18 had insomnia later in life, the article said. Of the other participants, only 20% had insomnia later as adults. They had either never become regular users or started after the age of 18.

The teen marijuana users also were more likely to suffer from short sleep — sleeping six hours or less a night.

The reason marijuana use might impact sleep later in life is unclear. “One theory is that these (brain cannabinoid) receptors are being desensitized or disturbed from all the cannabis use at a time that the brain is still developing and that leads to waking issues later,” Winiger said in a news release.

Genetics also might play a role. By using twins as study participants, the researchers were able to tease out whether marijuana use and sleep problems were genetic, the article said. They found that many of the same genes that increased the risk of early marijuana use also were associated with insomnia.

Co-author Ken Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the university, said the study does not mean “all strains of marijuana are bad for sleep in all people all the time.” This study is focused on teen use. “We would not recommend that teenagers utilize marijuana to promote their sleep,” he said. “Anytime you are dealing with a developing brain you need to be cautious.”

The study was published in the May issue of the journal Sleep (abstract).