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Cannabis and dreams: Halting long-term use can lead to one strange side effect

July 20, 2016

If you’ve ever taken a hiatus from your regular cannabis routine, you may have noticed one strange side effect once your eyes close for the night: your dreams change.

They may become vivid, maybe even lucid, or they may increase in frequency. There’s also the possibility that stopping or starting cannabis doesn’t have a profound effect on your dreams at all. Research theorizes links between cannabis and dreaming, but more studies are needed to establish a clear connection between the two. For now, it’s worth exploring how cannabis consumption uniquely and personally affects your dream cycles as well as the science that currently substantiates the idea that the two may be connected.

Why do we dream?

Woman floating towards an open window

But first, what causes dreams to begin with? Dreams occur during a specific sleep cycle known as REM, which stands for “rapid eye movement.” This stage occurs about 90 minutes into sleep, and is characterized by the quick, side-to-side eye movement from which its name is derived. REM sleep is activated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine as well as chemical activity in the pons region of the brain stem. The absence of neurotransmitters histamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine also characterizes REM cycles.

Although dream imagery can be attributed to this neural activity, researchers are still trying to pin down the exact reason for why our brains create these seemingly random internal movies. Some believe it’s for memory retention. Others say emotional processing and problem solving. And a few even deem dreams “meaningless.” Whatever the reason is, we spend about 20% of our sleep in this cycle, which warrants questions regarding its importance and the impact substances like cannabis have on its frequency and duration.

Cannabis and REM rebound theories

Man sleeping

Not long ago, I took a 3-week tolerance break from cannabis. I normally don’t dream much at all, and when I do, they’re typically unremarkable and unmemorable. But a few days into my t-break, I had vivid dreams involving herds of unicorns, a sky full of red balloons, a backdrop of exploding volcanoes, and the disembodied, narrating voice of Tommy Wiseau. It was so vivid that I expected to wake up in this strange apocalypse, only to find myself back in a drab reality devoid of unicorns and balloon-filled skies.

Can a Tolerance Break Rejuvenate the Effects of Cannabis?

I did some reading on cannabis and sleep afterward to see what might have spurred these unusual dreams and found a 2008 review that correlated cannabis consumption with decreased REM sleep. Logically, that would suggest that cannabis abstinence can trigger “REM rebound,” or a sudden increase in REM sleep and dreaming. This rebound phenomenon was observed in a 1975 sleep study and again in a 2008 PSG study. Another small 2004 study identified decreased REM duration in subjects dosed with 15mg of THC as well as a THC/CBD mixture, but did not record the effects of cannabis cessation.

Though more research is needed to really substantiate this link between cannabis and REM sleep, it would seem this is the likely explanation for why some have strange dreams after quitting.

Insomnia, PTSD, and nightmare control

Upset woman lying in bed

Although REM cycles are associated with restorative sleep and memory retention, there’s one therapeutic benefit to cannabis’s dream suppression: fewer nightmares.

Nightmares can be a common recurring symptom of PTSD and other anxiety disorders, and can interrupt an otherwise restful night of sleep. But cannabis and its dream-dulling effects can help. Take this Northern Lights Leafly review as testament.

“I suffer from PTSD and was told to try this strain by my doctor. I had no symptoms of my disorder and actually slept with no nightmares for the first time in 6 months.”

How Does Cannabis Consumption Affect Insomnia?

Or, as this Blackberry Kush reviewer puts it:

“I get flashback nightmares/night terrors, and this either keeps them away or keeps me from remembering them when I wake up, and I sleep about 8 hours.”

Whether or not nightmares are the problem, insomnia sufferers worldwide are finding a good night’s sleep with cannabis. It’s known to quicken the onset of sleep, promote longer sleep, and help resolve breathing-related sleep issues. So that brings us to another important question: are we doing our bodies harm by regularly suppressing REM sleep?

Are there negative consequences to REM suppression?

Woman enjoying a morning cup of coffee

Despite theories about REM’s importance in processing information and emotions, a lack of REM sleep appears to have little impact on waking behavior. Studies using EEG recordings show that even with minimal REM sleep, subjects report no obvious adverse effects in their day-do-day. However, this is not the case with non-REM deep sleep cycles. While it appears that we can survive just fine without REM, the sequences of other sleep cycles are imperative to our health. Anti-depressants, for example, are also known to suppress REM sleep, but a daily regimen of SSRIs doesn’t cause a downward cognitive spiral in consumers.

However, this doesn’t mean cognition will go completely unaffected by REM deprivation. Research has established a link between REM sleep and information and skill retention, so diminished REM sleep could lead to some cognitive impairments, especially in younger developing brains. Whether or not these impairments have long-term implications remains to be seen.

Cannabis and Sleep: 10 Things to Know About Your Herbal Nightcap

Cannabis can have wonderful healing properties for people suffering a myriad of sleep disorders even at the cost of some REM time, especially when those critical deep sleep cycles are affected. That being said, be mindful of how cannabis affects you. Notify your doctor if you use cannabis medicinally for sleep, and pay careful attention to how it affects your mind and body.

Should you decide to take a break and catch up on REM sleep, you’ll now know what to expect. It may not be mythical creatures, surreal landscapes, or disembodied Eastern European accents, but don’t rule out the possibility.

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  • bonjohnson

    Thanks for the informative article. I don’t dream much when i smoke, and also have incredibly lucid visceral dreams when I’m not high. I’ve been wondering whether or not I should take a break, or not smoke after 8pm or something… This gives me something to think about.

    • zane

      i smoked weed everyday for 25 years, and hardly remembered my dreams, or my dreams would be minimal. I’m one week into quitting now, and my dreams are as i remember them as a kid, it’s like a movie every night!! I don’t plan to go back to weed, and would rather have these awesome dreams as they are giving me a way better natural high than the weed. Welp, it’s off to the movies, g’night!! 🙂

  • CBD HEMPINDICA

    When I stop smoking weed…..
    I dream about……smoking weed..

    Hempindica.net

  • Khabo n

    Wow this explains so much.. been having intense ass dreams after I stopped smoking and holy shit. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like rather than waking up and remembering 20% of your dream (pulled that number out of thin air), you remember it in the middle of your dream. Like there isn’t any blur of what happened in between. It’s great when the dreams are chill but when you get nightmares, like the past two nights I did, you want out.. hard. I’ve thrown myself into a moving car just to get out of it because I knew it was a dream.. so fucking weird. Glad we have smart people out there doing research like this lol

  • Katerina

    I had to take a break after getting far too many panic attacks and went into deep depression (grade A stuff used, just 25/8 was too much).
    This definitely explains the flooding water park in a resort hotel and trying to find my way through Escherian style rooms… I’ve been a vivid dreamer before and during 4 years of smoking constantly I noticed right away I wasn’t dreaming at all. It’s been almost 3 weeks and they’re coming back with a vengeance!

    Very interesting and informative article.

  • Dreaming has been scientifically linked to memory consolidation. Smoking weed has a significant effect on short term memory. Thus, when you smoke marijuana you stop dreaming because of the effect it has on your memory consolidation. You’re welcome and I will take my nobel peace prize now.

  • Great article and good information about cannabis and dreaming. Thanks.

  • Tiger Quinn

    Well great. I’m an all day every day guy and I have to give it up for a bit. Now I’m terrified of What Dreams May Come.

  • Scott

    Kudos.

  • Highway 69

    I’m one of those people who even as a kid, didn’t have dreams. My sister, on the other hand, had dreams every night! We concluded that I did dream — but just didn’t remember them.

    Fast forward 50 years… whether I’m getting high or not — I still don’t remember my dreams!