A Good Night’s Sleep? The Truth about Using Marijuana and Alcohol as Sleep Aids

How successful are these drugs in inducing a good night’s sleep – and what are the drawbacks, over time, to using them as sleep aids?

A Good Night’s Sleep? The Truth about Using Marijuana and Alcohol as Sleep Aids

One in three people are said to suffer from occasional insomnia, and anyone who has experienced a more serious form of this sleep disorder will know just how frustrating and debilitating it can be. While some insomniacs turn to sleeping pills to assure them of a good night’s sleep, in the long run this is neither effective nor advisable, medically speaking. Many others rely on self-medication to help them drop off, with alcohol and marijuana commonly cited as effective sleep aids.


But how successful are these drugs in inducing a good night’s sleep — and what are the drawbacks, over time, to using them as sleep aids?

A Nightcap or Three

“I’ve relied on a nightcap — or three — to send me to sleep for years,” says Nick, a computer engineer who’s struggled with insomnia since he was a teenager. “I know people say you shouldn’t drink before bed, but for me it was the only thing that worked. My insomnia peaked during my last year of college, and I was prescribed sleeping pills by my doctor, but they had terrible side effects — I started suffering from extreme mood swings and they left a nasty, metallic taste in my mouth the next day.”

Nick decided to switch to a classic sleep aid: a nightcap – in his case, a few whiskeys in the hours leading up to bedtime. Though it’s common knowledge that on the whole, alcohol can be detrimental to sleep, around 15 percent of people regularly use alcohol to drop off. Studies suggest that alcohol loses its benefit as a sleep aid after just a few nights, and after several nights of drinking your body builds up a tolerance to its soporific effects.

Further, a study this year by scientists at the University of Melbourne found that students who drank alcohol before going to bed displayed interrupted sleep patterns. While this study did, like many before it, find evidence that alcohol can help to reduce the time it takes to actually fall asleep, it also cemented the idea that alcohol is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Alcohol significantly reduces REM sleep, the deepest stage of sleep where dreaming is most likely to occur. It does, conversely, increase slow-wave sleep during the first half of the night, a stage of sleep linked to the body’s healing and restoration. So it seems there is somewhat of a compromise: Alcohol can help you fall asleep and enjoy a restful first half of the night, but the trade-off is disrupted, fragmented sleep for the second half. Naturally, people are affected in different ways and there are many people like Nick who insist that a stiff drink before bed is actually beneficial overall:

“I honestly feel rested the next morning. Perhaps the second half of my sleep isn’t as restful as it could be, but it certainly beats the alternative — a sleepless night, tossing and turning and becoming more and more frustrated. Or, turning to sleeping pills, where the long-term effects still aren’t known, and experiencing adverse side-effects. I know it’s not exactly healthy to drink every night, but it’s not like I’m drinking excessively each night; it’s just a few drinks. I’m prepared to pay that price for a good night’s sleep.”

A Deficiency of Dreams

Being prepared to compromise a degree of health for some restful sleep is not uncommon among insomniacs, as freelance writer Leah can attest. A regular marijuana smoker for over nine years, Leah has noticed negative cognitive effects as a result of the drug, but insists it’s all worth it.

“I first started smoking marijuana when I was at college,” Leah says. “I’d found it difficult to fall asleep since I was a child, but the older I got, the more elusive sleep became. I first tried pot as a college student experimenting, and found that it was the only thing that sent me to sleep. My doctor had given me some pretty heavy-duty sleeping pills, but they didn’t work too well. I had a friend who became addicted to sleeping pills with some really bad consequences, so I was very wary of taking them as it was.”

Aside from an increase in appetite, the best known side-effect of marijuana is probably the relaxed, drowsy feeling it provokes, which is why it’s such a popular sleep aid. But inducing sleep isn’t the only affect marijuana has; like alcohol, it reduces REM sleep and therefore dreaming — but to a more extreme effect. It is specifically the ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that affects REM sleep, and it’s common for regular marijuana users to witness a flooding of extreme dreams as soon as they stop smoking.

“I’ve definitely noticed that I don’t dream anymore,” acknowledges Leah. “But for me, that was a pretty welcome side-effect. I used to have very vivid, messed-up dreams that would leave me feeling unsettled for hours in the morning. I can’t say I miss that.”

While Leah may not miss her dreams, they are nonetheless important. Dreaming is the brain’s way of sifting through the numerous images and thoughts that one experiences each day, and quashing this function is not at all ideal, as Dr. Hans Hamburger explains:

“By smoking weed, you suppress the REM sleep, and with that you also suppress a lot of important functions of that REM sleep. One of those functions is reliving the things you have experienced and coming to terms with them, as it were. Processing all kinds of psychological influences is something you do in REM sleep. You also anticipate the things that will happen the next day or the days after that. While you're sleeping, you already consider those and make decisions in advance."

Science’s Greatest Unsolved Mystery

It has even been suggested that marijuana can actually exacerbate insomnia; a study last year by the University of Pennsylvania found that people who began using marijuana early on in life were more prone to sleep problems later. However, it must be noted that this notion is still inconclusive. While around 42 percent of daily marijuana users experienced sleep disturbances when they quit (just as nearly 75 percent of alcoholics experienced insomnia for a period after quitting), for regular users like Leah this is inconsequential:

“I suffered from chronic insomnia way before I started smoking pot. I do wish I didn’t have to rely on it though, because while it means I can guarantee a long, deep sleep, it does affect me negatively in some ways. I’m usually quite groggy in the mornings — although, far less groggy than I would be if I hadn’t slept at all! But I have started to notice the effect on my memory, which is quite alarming considering that I’m not even 30 yet. But realistically, what else can I do if I want to sleep and refuse heavy medication? There’s no cure for insomnia; I can’t afford to go to a sleep clinic and even if I could, I don’t have the time for it.”

Unfortunately for Leah, the causes and cures of insomnia still remain, to a large part, a mystery to scientists. Though we spend around a third of our lives sleeping — and all animals sleep in various forms — the fact remains that scientists still don’t fully understand why: Sleep has even been called “one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science.” Despite the risks associated with self-medicating with alcohol or marijuana, it seems that the threat of not sleeping at all counteracts that — to insomniacs, at least.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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