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Recent Study Sheds No Real Light on Cannabis and Sleep

cannabis and sleep
Written by Sarah Friedman
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The new trend seems to be to put out constant research on cannabis saying it does something or other. As a growing industry, everyone wants their say, even if they don’t have anything to say, or if it means getting news information wrong, or changing stories to have better headlines. Such is the case with articles coming out about a recent study conducted into cannabis and how people sleep. Not only do the articles about it get it wrong, but the study itself is shoddy at best.

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The study in question

In December 2021, the study Recent cannabis use and nightly sleep duration in adults: a population analysis of the NHANES from 2005 to 2018, was published in the magazine Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine. The aim of the study was to “determine the relationship between cannabis use and nightly sleep duration in a nationally representative dataset.” What data set was used? Already collected data that was not collected for this particular study. The information used comes from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data from 2005 to 2018.

The reason I make a big deal about where the information came from, is because, what this means is that the researchers pulled data from a survey unrelated to what they were studying. They spoke to none of the respondents in the study, as it was conducted for other purposes, and controlled for literally no information, like prior sleep issues, other drug use, mental health issues, and familial health histories.

What the researchers did was to group survey respondents (covering approximately 146 million US adults) in two categories based on whether they reported cannabis use in the past 30 days, or not. Then, sleep patterns were examined between the two groups, with each being put into the category of short (less than 6 hours), optimal (6-9 hours), and long (9 hours and up). The study did adjust for sociodemographic and some health-related co-variates, although only what could have already been collected. As the health survey taken from was not designed to answer the questions in the cannabis study, it cannot be expected that relevant covariates were accounted for.

cannabis sleep studies

According to the study results, 14.5% of respondents reported cannabis use in the past month. With an adjusted analysis, it was found that recent cannabis users were more likely than non-users to report short sleep times and long sleep times. Those who were considered heavy users (smoked 20 or more days in the past 30), were more likely to be on either end.

Why a study like this is essentially useless

While collected data can often be useful, it can also be the basis for misusing information. For the standard public, it would appear that a study was actually done into cannabis use and sleep, but that’s not the case. The NHANES is survey research collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in order to track health and nutrition issues of adults and children in the US, and to track changes over time. It’s not about cannabis.

It uses interviews, laboratory tests, and physical exams in its collected data set. How much of this is specifically collected by researchers, and how much is taken from existing data sets is hard to say though, meaning even the collection of this information may have been done without speaking to respondents.

The researchers for the cannabis sleep study merely tapped into some of this research, taking the parts they wanted, leaving out anything they didn’t want to account for, and simply not accounting for anything for which data never existed. This is not research where the researchers set up their own study groups, so the researchers have never had anything to do with any respondents in this survey, nor did they design a study to investigate this issue, or perform an experiment.

What if people using cannabis with shorter sleep times were actually elongating a much shorter sleep time by using the cannabis? And what if the majority of long cannabis sleepers actually have some other health issue that relates to their long sleeping time? And what about the kind of cannabis used – was it standard weed, CBD, CBN; was it sativa or indica; what was the method of ingestion; what was the quality of sleep; and specifically were they smoking it? Once smoking enters the picture, all kinds of things can go out of whack because smoking causes so many issues. What about nutritional aspects, what percentage of these respondents were eating a diet that might get in the way of sleep? The US isn’t known for its awesome health, and physical health issues play massively into sleep.

I see so many issues with this study, that it’s hard to imagine it would be taken up by the public. In essence, nothing is learned, because the study is so faulty. Yet, that hasn’t stopped writers from snatching it up for a headline, ready to make statements like “CANNABIS MAY MAKE SLEEP WORSE, STUDY SAYS” which is a) not really what the study said, and b) not technically something that can be gleaned from it based on black holes of information.

sleep studies

The reality of it

In reality, actual sleep studies into cannabis use have turned up mixed results, though a growing industry toward using it for sleep would indicate that people are getting help with it. This is also backed up by sites like reddit, where the majority of answerers relay positive sleep benefits of cannabis. On such sites, its best to keep in mind that people often answer with what they think they know, not their own experience, so it helps to look at what they’re saying to tell if its a personal experience or not, and to disregard know-it-alls over experience-givers. This is probably a good time to remind that not everyone is effected the same way by everything, and that its quite possible cannabis could be beneficial for some, and not for others.

For my part I can say that vaping weed can help me fall asleep as well as go back to sleep in the middle of the night. Though it won’t work all the time. And I say this as one of the worst insomniacs you’ll meet, who has been medicated for this purpose since childhood. In fact, I can use cannabis products for this purpose rather than harder medications, which is a major benefit. As an athlete (running and ballet), taking heavy medications can get in the way of daytime performance, so having an alternative like cannabis is not only useful, its imperative. That’s how it effects me, though, and this may not be relevant to everyone.

While different results exist, this study being written about did not use data collected on a study into cannabis and sleep, it used preexisting data from an unrelated survey, which would not have gotten all the necessary information for any firm and usable results to be made. So though it showed a similar outcome of varying results, these specific results are not based on very good data. They also say very little other than that cannabis users tend to fall on opposite ends of a spectrum, while providing nothing about quality of sleep. A real sleep study will give much more specific and relevant information.

A study being done directly into cannabis and sleep is a study where the study investigators specifically design an experiment to test a related hypothesis, using study participants for that purpose, and collecting direct data on the outcome of the experiment. An experiment could mean giving respondents cannabis and then assessing their sleep after.

Or if done via a survey, for the survey to be directly about the issue of cannabis and sleep, wherein all the relevant questions are asked to ascertain all necessary information. Even a systematic review into a certain topic is more likely to net more correct information since it evaluates multiple pieces of literature designed on the same topic. This study isn’t even like that, literally taking information from an unrelated place.

Of course, besides the information source being questionable in terms of how useful it is for this particular study, the results aren’t that enlightening. Without any description or further detail, we’ve learned very little. We don’t know enough about respondents in a group, we don’t know enough about how cannabis was used, we don’t know enough about overall health, and we don’t know enough about sleep issues and histories of respondents. All its saying is ‘cannabis can effect sleep’, which is a broad statement we already knew, and the reason that real research is being done directly into the topic.

Why does this happen?

24 hour news

We’ve had way more intricate and well-defined studies come out on cannabis and sleep, and even they have a hard time making big statements. These are large areas of study that don’t often have hard-fast answers that apply to everyone. In fact, one of the things to be picked up on by the study outcome, is that cannabis users fell into both extremes, and that says something. It says that one outcome cannot be expected, so all that other information…it becomes wildly important.

The problem is that we live in a world where people want hard-fast answers, even when they don’t exist. Couple that with a growing industry that has its own 24-hour news cycle, researchers who want to be published, and writers who want a story, and the end result is a maelstrom of recycled and useless information. For researchers, this is a quick and easy way of putting out a study without essentially having to do a study. A real study can take years of time, this kind of assessment can be done very quickly. The calculations can be made by a computer in minutes, maybe seconds.

And since the public desperately wants clarity in this unclear world, it latches onto what it can to get information, often without seeing the reasons for the information to be put out. Will the average person know to look at methodology to identify a good study from a bad one? Probably not. And they’re not supposed to. So, all they’re left with is headlines meant to pull them in different directions. A lot of headlines based on this study will say all kinds of things about cannabis and sleep. But the reality is that absolutely nothing new was learned, and nothing useful was put out there.

Conclusion

It says way more about research integrity and journalistic integrity that such a study would gain any prominence in news cycles. Is it a bad study? No. It doesn’t look like its meant to be a smear campaign, or misleading apart from the lack of useful information its based on. It looks like an easy, half-assed study that didn’t require any real work. It’s an unnecessary study that doesn’t add anything to our knowledge base. While it definitely means we should be careful in how we weigh research methodology and results in terms of accuracy and helpfulness, the growing muddle of information out there only points to increasing muddiness in the future. More of this should be expected.

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DisclaimerHi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.

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