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Crazy Dreamscapes

Jun 19, 2017 08:57PM ● Published by Leland Rucker

I was at home in bed, surrounded by friends, when I began singing “The Tattooed Lady,” an old novelty song from my childhood. I wouldn’t stop, even when begged, and finally they all started trying to strangle me. That’s when I awoke, sweating and uneasy, kicking my legs and sending my covers in all directions. It wasn’t until I settled down that I realized it had just been a dream.
It wasn’t the first time. Over many years, whenever I stop using cannabis for more than a week, the crazy dreams return. I’ve partied with famous people, traveled to distant landscapes, been suffocated by my friends, and transcended time and place, all within my own head and bed. It’s almost as much fun as, well, getting elevated.

But I’ve always wondered why this happens. Why are dreams more intense when I stop using cannabis, or do they just seem to be that way? Does cannabis inhibit dreaming, or do you just remember your dreams better when you’re unelevated? And is any of this necessarily good or bad for you?

I’m hardly the only one. Type “marijuana and dreams” into any search engine, and you’ll find many examples of cannabis users who have experienced the same kinds of vivid dreams when they stop. I decided to try and find out more about it.

That’s not as easy as it may seem. All cannabis research is limited because of the usual reasons: The process to get the permits required by the federal government to study cannabis is challenging to say the least, and scientists whose studies are approved have to use only government-produced marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi. That marijuana has been shown to be little more than old ditch weed, nothing like the legal cannabis people are growing and using across the US. Beyond that, it’s also challenging to know what affect cannabis use has on dreams because we don’t know very much about sleep cycles and what part dreams play in our lives and well-being.

The importance of (tangerine) dreams
Sleep scientists generally characterize slumber as occurring in three basic phases, or stages: light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. We spend our snoozing hours moving through these phases, with an average cycle lasting about 90 to 110 minutes, although it’s different for everybody. Each cycle apparently fulfills some kind of physiological or neurological function, although beyond their restorative roles, we don’t really know what those functions are. Some believe that dreams have meaning for our waking lives; others try to learn to explore and control them.

We can dream during any of the sleep stages, but we dream more and are most likely to remember dreams we have while in the REM stage, the one characterized by rapid eye movement, a slight rise in respiration rate, and increased brain activity. We are less likely to remember dreams we have in the deep-sleep stage, when we’re generally harder to wake, than we are ones we have while in REM. 

Early studies on the effect of cannabis on dreams measured brain waves and eye movement and suggested that cannabis use somehow inhibits the REM portion of sleep, which in turn suppresses dreams. Discontinuing cannabis use lets your body catch up, so to speak, with what many call an “REM rebound.” While your body catches up on REM sleep, the reasoning goes, it’s also catching up on dreams, which makes them more vivid and memorable.

As I began to look deeper, I noticed that most of this preliminary research is from 40 to 50 years ago. Often cited is a 1975 study that, for instance, noted changes in rapid eye movements and shorter REM periods of sleep in longtime cannabis users. But that study tested only seven people, hardly enough to produce enough data to draw any serious conclusions.

And there’s another thing. Many people, including some scientists, suggest that cannabis users don’t dream, and—at least in my case—I know that isn’t true. Just last week, I wound up in a room with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but just before I could start peppering him with questions about his quaint stance on cannabis, I woke up.

Sweet (BLUE) dreams
Dr. Timothy Roehrs is director of research at the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit and a professor at the Wayne State School of Medicine. He spoke about the frustration of trying to mount sleep studies using cannabis and corroborated that most studies on cannabis and sleep date back to the 1970s and 1980s. Only limited research has been done in the 21st century.

“We’ve been wanting to administer THC in the sleep lab and haven’t been able to do that,” he says. “To properly study it, you need to give a measured dose of THC to a participant over a prospective number of days. Right now, it’s terribly difficult to get measured doses of THC. We’re left with anecdotal information, and you never know for sure what dose was being used and being taken on a given set of nights.”

While he hasn’t been able to properly study the effects of cannabis on sleep, Roehrs has conducted many studies on the effects of alcohol on sleep, which confirm the REM rebound effect that causes people to “catch up” on dreams. During REM sleep, he says, one is more likely to wake and report having dreams. In those early sleep studies on cannabis and dreams, the marijuana seemed to suppress REM sleep much like alcohol does.

Roehrs isn’t so sure it’s that easy. “What that means is that you have increased amounts of REM sleep also fragmented with brief and rapid awakenings. If I take you and put you in the sleep lab, and I awaken you out of REM sleep by shaking you vigorously, that rapid arousal from sleep gives you a sense of being present in the dream,” he says. “Those are the vivid images that are likely what is happening with discontinuing marijuana.”

Roehrs cautions that he isn’t suggesting that this is anything more than speculation on his or anyone else’s part. We really don’t know what significance REM dreaming or suppression might have on our well-being. Still, this makes more sense to me than the theory that cannabis use stops people from dreaming.

For instance, he says, common antidepressant drugs used by many Americans suppress REM sleep while they normalize mood. “And, unlike marijuana, these antidepressants continue to suppress REM sleep, and you get this REM insomnia-like experience,” he explains. “When people who were taking antidepressants stop, they can have REM rebound. Not only do we not know if it might be bad for you, if you have mild depression, dreaming might improve your mood. But we don’t know these things.”

If you’re one of those who doesn’t like the crazy dreams, this isn’t much solace. But since I kind of enjoy them, until we find out more about the subject, I’m satisfied. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to get back into that dream with Jeff Sessions. 
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