I’ve been a regular cannabis user for years, but recently I decided to take a break from my nearly daily consumption for a plethora of reasons including cost and tolerance. My recent hiatus from high-concentration THC cartridges had an unintended consequence: I experienced insanely vivid and convoluted dreams verging on nightmares.
I’ve never really had trouble falling asleep or problems with nightmares in the past, but my cannabis withdrawal unleashed a cornucopia of vignettes including being in the passenger seat of a car during a high-speed chase with police, witnessing a beloved family member suffer from shrapnel wounds, and other mind-fucking scenarios that are best interpreted by a licensed therapist.
I’ve known that cannabis withdrawal symptoms include intense dreams and have experienced this in the past, but I decided to do some research on why this phenomenon occurs. After pouring through articles and studies on the effects of cannabis on dreams, I found little consensus on why people experience overpowering dreams after they’ve stopped consuming cannabis.
Before diving headfirst into the study results, I’ll briefly explain how dreams are formulated. Humans go through 5 stages of sleep during the night. During the first light sleep stage, we nod off into the second stage where eye movement and brain waves slow down. In stage 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle, we experience deep sleep with very limited muscle movement and brain activity.
After about 90 minutes of stage 1 through 4, we experience the rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep stage where we experience vivid dreams. A full night’s sleep typically consists of 4-5 of these complete sleep cycles. Throughout the night, the time we spend in non-REM sleep becomes shorter and REM sleep stages are longer (up to 40 minutes by the time we wake up). People only remember their dreams when they wake up during their REM sleep stage.
A 1975 study found that participants experienced withdrawals of high dosages of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that included reduced REM sleep. Another study in 2008 found that smoking or oral consumption of cannabis also reduced REM sleep, although it made people fall asleep faster. These studies demonstrate a pattern similar to other substance withdrawals like alcohol, sleep medication, antidepressants, opioids, and more.
It’s unclear why humans and animals need REM sleep and dreams in the first place. Possible hypotheses suggest that dreams help us regulate neurotransmitter levels and store memories of the day. All we know is that substance withdrawal can lead to the REM rebound effect where people experience an increase in REM sleep characterized by intense and vivid dreams. The effect can last for weeks or longer.
For people who suffer from night terrors, cannabis use can reduce their nightmares and help people with insomnia sleep faster. For people without sleep disorders, cannabis use at night can help them relax their mind and body. Just make sure to prepare for the forthcoming dream apocalypse you’ll experience. It doesn’t help that I watched an extreme horror movie last night before falling asleep, but that’s a different story.