People who use marijuana can develop a range of physical and mental health issues, including addiction, non-addicted drug abuse, altered respiratory function, altered memory function and impaired or altered brain development. In a study published in June 2014 in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine journal Sleep, University of Pennsylvania researchers explored the potential connection between marijuana use and the onset of several types of sleep problems. These researchers concluded that adults with a current or past history of using the drug have increased risks for developing such problems, especially when their initial use of marijuana occurred at an early age.
Figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that marijuana ranks as the most widely used illicit/illegal drug in America. While the drug is consumed across a broad range of ages, peak rates of use occur in older teenagers and young adults below the age of 30. In the midst of a wave of state-level decriminalization and legalization, marijuana has gained considerable levels of social acceptability across the U.S. However, proponents of the drug often understate or ignore scientifically verified concerns associated with its use. Chief among these concerns is the risk for the development of drug addiction. Out of the combined pool of casual and habitual marijuana users, nearly one in 10 people will develop a cannabis addiction. This rate nearly doubles for teen users of the drug and increases by 150 percent to 400 percent when casual users are removed from the equation. People who start using marijuana before the age of 15 have increased risks for a number of related problems.
Fairly common sleep problems include insomnia (characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep), excessive daytime sleepiness (broadly defined as an inability to remain sufficiently wakeful during daily activities) and a failure to gain the restful benefits of sleeping, even when sleep occurs for a normally restorative amount of time. Some people only have occasional sleep problems and/or relatively minor sleep problems that don’t lead to a substantial decline in health and well-being. However, others develop much more severe sleep problems and may qualify for an official diagnosis of a sleep disorder. The American Psychiatric Association, traditionally tasked with setting the criteria for diagnosing mental health issues in the U.S., officially classifies a range of sleep disorders as mental illnesses called sleep-wake disorders.
Is There a Link?
In the study published in Sleep, the University of Pennsylvania researchers used information from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to explore the potential connection between marijuana use and the onset of sleep problems. For the year under consideration (2007-2008), 1,811 participants in this survey between the ages of 20 and 59 identified themselves as being current or past drug users. Among this group of individuals, the researchers assessed factors that included any involvement in the use of marijuana or some other form of cannabis, the age at which use of marijuana/cannabis first took place and the frequency of marijuana/cannabis use in the month prior to the survey. The researchers also looked for the presence of sleep problems in these individuals; they deemed anyone who had such problems at least 50 percent of the time as “severely” affected by sleep-related issues.
After analyzing the data on both marijuana/cannabis use and sleep problems, the researchers concluded that people who have ever used the drug are significantly more likely than their non-using counterparts to have issues with insomnia, unusual daytime sleepiness or unrestful sleep. The chances of experiencing such issues are particularly noteworthy among adults who first started using marijuana/cannabis before reaching their 15th birthdays. Independent of any common demographic factors (gender, racial/ethnic heritage, etc.), these individuals have roughly 100 percent higher odds of developing severe forms of insomnia, unrestful sleep or daytime sleepiness.
The study’s authors note that the framework of their project was not designed to confirm or deny marijuana/cannabis use as the cause of sleep problems. It’s possible that early involvement with the drug leads to developmental changes that increase the chances of developing sleep problems. However, it’s also possible that people who start using marijuana/cannabis at an early age may have preexisting sleep problems, and may even turn to intake of the drug in a conscious or unconscious attempt to improve their sleep.