Sweet Dreams Are Made of What?

A former Ambien zombie embraces sleepy-time cannabis
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Cannabis for Sleep

My wife and I were flying a red-eye to Paris, on our way to Marseille for anniversary shenanigans. Romance was in the air! I wanted to arrive refreshed in France, so I downed an Ambien before the wheels went up over JFK. Sure enough, I conked out. Only problem: I have no recollection of landing in Paris, exiting the airplane, walking through Charles de Gaulle airport to the new gate, or boarding our flight to the south of France. I was an Ambien zombie.

I eventually threw that groggy monkey off my back, but I didn't find a better answer until I moved to Colorado—aka Canna-topia—two years ago. I ran over to my local dispensary and came out with a bottle of THC-laden (10mg) indica gummies. You may know about the reputation of indica strains as soporifics, and the mnemonic that goes with it: Indica will send you in da couch until the birds call the following morning. But with the genetic recombinations that pass for R&D in the cannabis space, even that distinction isn’t reliable. Nonetheless, the gummies helped, as did my indica vape pen, and some chocolate-covered blueberries (5mg THC) I picked up from a pot shaman in Santa Barbara, CA.

As I blundered from one sleep experiment to the next, I began yearning for advice from actual medical personnel, rather than the bro-ed out bud tenders who earnestly tried to help, based on who-knows-what background. So thank goodness for Dustin Sulak, D.O., who practices medicine in Falmouth, ME. He also operates a website called Healer.com to consult with out-of-state sufferers from chronic pain, anxiety, PTSD and, of course, insomnia.  

Dr. Sulak has a conventional medical degree from the Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine, which he has supplemented with a two-decade-long study of integrative medicine. He can pull the levers of conventional cures, or propose mind-body-soul healing methods out of the “alternative” toolkit. One go-to: a stinking green herb that is introducing new therapeutic options for so many people. Including sleepy old me.  

“Do you have a problem falling asleep, or staying asleep?” he asks, his phone-side manner instantly calming me down. I pour out my symptoms: I fall asleep quickly, but nearly every night I awaken in the wee hours with my mind racing a million miles an hour and my legs trying to keep up. I suffer from exercise-induced restless- leg syndrome, as well.  

Dr. Sulak is right there for me. “I recommend an oral dose of THC for people who wake up in the night,” he says. “It has a delayed onset—45 minutes or an hour—but it will last most of the night."

THC is not a hypnotic, he notes, so it won’t knock me straight out, like many sleeping pills. But THC preparations work three ways to gentle you into oblivion: 1) they lessen pain and anxiety, 2) they induce a state called “catalepsy,” so that your body is comfortable in a still position (jitterbug-legs me says “amen!"), and 3) they impair short-term memory, to keep you from ruminating about that stupid thing your boss said.

For those who have trouble with sleep onset (i.e, they can’t fall asleep), he recommends vaporized cannabis flower, instead of a vape pen pre-loaded with cannabis oil. Says Dr. Sulak: “That allows users to take advantage of specific cannabis varieties known to promote sleep or to address the specific symptoms—pain, anxiety, etc.—that are preventing them from falling asleep.”

Dosing is an issue, too: “It seems counterintuitive, but people who have trouble with THC and sleep are often taking too much of it,” he says. That’s why he starts people out with just 2mg THC, and has them adjust upward by a milligram every other night until they reach a sweet (dreams) spot.

“It’s really not fair for people to rely on the dispensary personnel to practice medicine,” Dr. Sulak says. And he's right: having an actual physician offer cannabis-related advice made me sleep easier. Or maybe it was the THC. Either way, I’m a believer. “