Medically reviewed by Katherine Golden, RN
Written by Denise Gonzalez-Walker

Insomnia is an issue we hear a lot about on the Leaf411 hotline. Many callers ask if cannabis might help manage age-related sleep issues.

The short answer for most people is yes—but it depends on your specific health conditions as well as finding the best products to meet your needs.

We also hear concerns from callers who are eager to try cannabis as an alternative for sleep but worry about experiencing an unwanted high.

In today’s blog, we’ll address both these issues—why cannabis may help with age-related sleep issues and how to use it to minimize the risk of feeling overly intoxicated or uncomfortable.

(Note: When we talk about cannabis, we include both CBD hemp which is federally legal and non-intoxicating with less than 0.3% THC, as well as marijuana containing over 0.3% THC, which is legally sold in dispensaries in states that have legalized adult-use/recreational or medical marijuana.)

Older Black man sits at his computer staring into the distance, appearing tired and distracted.

Why Is Sleep So Hard As You Get Older?

It’s a well-known fact that sleep patterns change as we grow older. Falling asleep is more difficult and quality of sleep suffers, according to the Sleep Foundation. Many seniors also experience insomnia, impacting their overall quality of life. Changes in seniors’ sleep architecture trace back to the aging brain, a phenomenon that researchers have managed to capture using imaging in the lab.

Also, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, pain and many other common physical and mental health conditions may negatively impact sleep cycles. And let’s not forget those everyday worries that keep all our minds preoccupied late into the night!

Clothesline with 3 signs saying “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” symbolizing the challenge of finding the best solution for sleep.

Finding a Sleep Solution that Fits

When seeking a sleep solution, it’s essential first to have a clear sense of where the problem is. Many different treatment options exist, but they are not one-size-fits-all.

If your sleep difficulties are rooted in unhelpful bedtime habits like keeping the news channel on all evening, then the solution may involve behavioral approaches like turning off the TV and listening to calming music instead.

Certain health conditions and medications may also cause insomnia. If you suspect that a health condition may be the source of your insomnia, we suggest first talking with your primary provider to address any underlying medical issues.

In some cases, cannabis might be a helpful adjunct therapy for specific health issues. For example, cannabis has shown promise in managing restless leg syndrome. However, in other cases, cannabis may not be a good fit if it interferes with medications you’re taking.

Our Leaf nurses have the experience, training and research-backed knowledge to help determine whether cannabis may be a suitable option for you if you’re dealing with health condition-related sleep issues.

For many seniors, though, insomnia isn’t due to a specific health issue but is simply the outcome of the aging brain and changing sleep patterns. You may find that it’s harder to fall asleep or stay asleep, even after cutting out caffeine, taking up evening mindfulness practices, and shutting down electronics early in the evening. That can be frustrating!

Medical provider holding sleep pills in one hand, and cannabis in the other hand as an alternative for sleep.

Looking For Alternatives to Pharmaceutical Sleep Medications?

Finding a product that supports a good night’s sleep is the holy grail for most of us. A lot of over-the-counter and prescription products exist, but many come with unwanted side effects.

Over-the-counter medications like Unisom (doxylamine) and Benadryl (diphenhydramine) may cause unwanted grogginess the following day.

Likewise, many prescription sleep medications may work in the short term but have troubling trade-offs. The popular drug Ambien (zolpidem tartrate) is a hypnotic that’s gained a reputation for causing serious side effects in some people, including amnesia, hallucinations, sleepwalking and even sleep-driving. It also has the potential for dependency, like many other prescription sleep medications.

A powerful plant-based sleep alternative is becoming available to more people as marijuana legalization spreads to more states each year. However, just like conventional medications, not all marijuana is the same. Knowing the best type of product for your particular sleep issues can make a tremendous difference.

Your Cannabis Sleep Team: THC, CBD, CBN, Terpenes and More

You’ve likely heard about tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD); however, those are only two out of 113 different identified cannabinoids found in cannabis plants. Here’s a quick primer on some of the various cannabis plant compounds:

  • THC: This cannabinoid is responsible for the “high” that cannabis is best known for when used in large enough amounts. THC binds to CB1 receptors that are primarily found in your brain and spinal cord and help regulate the nervous system, as well as CB2 receptors which are found in the peripheral nervous system and play a role in reducing inflammation.
  • CBD: A non-intoxicating cannabinoid that indirectly affects the CB1 and CB2 receptors, though it doesn’t bind to them. CBD has been shown to reduce inflammation and muscle spasms and to help manage anxiety.
  • CBN: Cannabinol (CBN) is a lesser-known cannabinoid created when THC is exposed to heat and light over a period of time, and has been called the “sleep cannabinoid” by some people due to its sedating effects. It also lacks the intoxicating effects of THC, though an older study showed that it could make the effects of THC feel stronger. Research is still limited on exactly how CBN impacts sleep onset or duration.
  • Terpenes: Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in cannabis along with many other plants, including lemons, basil, oregano and pine trees. For example, if you’ve ever used lavender-scented products to help with relaxation, then you’ve experienced the power of linalool, a terpene found in lavender as well as in some cannabis chemovars (strains).
Cannabidiol (CBD) tincture with an illustration of CBD’s chemical structure and cannabis leaves in background.

How CBD Helps with Sleep – and How It Doesn’t

Remember when we mentioned the importance of identifying the root cause of your insomnia to find the best solution? CBD is the perfect example of why that’s the case.

If your sleeplessness is the result of anxiety, stress or inflammation-related pain, then CBD may be useful at higher doses. Paradoxically, lower doses of CBD may cause wakefulness. Dr. Dustin Sulak discusses this challenge in an interview on his Healer.com website.

However, if you are contending with age-related changes in your sleep patterns, CBD may not be enough to solve your sleep issues.

Unfortunately, when CBD doesn’t work, many folks write off plant-based alternatives as a failed experiment and resign themselves to chronic fatigue or less-than-ideal pharmaceuticals.

Why CBD May Not Solve Your Sleep Problems

CBD doesn’t bind with the CB1 receptors that are concentrated in your brain and nervous system, but THC does. That gives THC an advantage when dealing with age-related sleep issues that are connected to the brain.

“But wait,” you might be saying, “I don’t want to get high—I just want to get a good night’s sleep!”

At Leaf411, we understand. Despite growing research and medical marijuana legalization in over half the states, the plant still suffers from stigma and misconceptions.

Stoner stereotypes are hard to shake, especially when some brands and celebrities promote the recreational, fun aspects of cannabis and not the plant’s therapeutic value.

Also, occasional fear-mongering news stories report how potent cannabis is today, but that’s not the full story. The legalization of marijuana in many states has allowed for more precise cultivation and manufacturing practices to develop flower (bud), concentrates, edibles, tinctures and other products tailored to different consumers. As a result, you’ll find products designed for consumers seeking high-THC products as well as for consumers looking for much smaller amounts of THC, or even ratio products with balanced amounts of THC and CBD.

Most legal states also require licensed marijuana cultivators and manufacturers to regularly test their products, assuring that the stated levels of THC are accurate. CBD products, on the other hand, are not required to undergo any testing, so it’s buyer beware.

Wooden letter blocks spelling out “Microdosing” referencing microdosing THC for relief.

Microdosing THC for Sleep, Not to Get High

When it comes to using marijuana for sleep, our mantra at Leaf411 is to start low and go slow.

Leading cannabis physicians support this approach, including Leaf411 board member Dr. Dave Gordon as well as Dr. Dustin Sulak.

Even very small amounts of THC, like 2mg, can have therapeutic benefits. Using very small amounts of THC is called microdosing, and it’s an increasingly popular option among people of all ages who are seeking cannabis’s health benefits without an intoxicating high.

Because everyone’s endocannabinoid system is different, the minimum dose required for positive effects is also different—that’s why we always say to start low and go slow to find your optimal dose. How low? At Leaf411, we suggest starting with ¼ the suggested serving size on the package, or 1-2 mg of THC, whichever is lower.

You may not feel anything at the lowest dose, but by starting low and going up slowly each night, you can build up your dose safely until you find the right amount that works for your body. When increasing by a milligram or less each night, you may still end up with a dose that makes you feel a bit too groggy in the morning or uncomfortable before falling asleep. If this happens, just go back to the dose that was comfortable and reassess after a few days. When using ingestible products (edibles and tinctures), it can take up to 2 hours for you to feel an effect, so allow plenty of time before increasing your dose.

Old-fashioned clock at 7:15 pm, reminding someone to use THC a few hours before bedtime to help with insomnia.

It is always vital to time your dose about 1-2 hours before you want to fall asleep instead of waiting until the moment you are climbing into bed. Timing your dose will allow you to relax before bedtime instead of watching the clock and hoping it kicks in fast.

Our Leaf411 nurses always guide our callers to safe use by cautioning about potential side effects from THC, which is dry mouth and an unsteady gait. Our nurses suggest keeping a glass of water at your bedside so there is no need to walk to the kitchen and risk falling when you feel the cannabis take effect. These precautions are very similar to those you’d take with any other sleep medications.

Healthy older white woman at home sitting on a yoga mat while calling Leaf411 with sleep questions.

Helping You Find the Best Cannabis Product for Insomnia and Sleep

Our Leaf nurses are knowledgeable about the unique challenges that seniors face in getting a good night’s sleep. Our goal is to provide balanced education and clinically-sound guidance that is specific to your needs and goals. Our commitment is to you—the consumer—not to a particular product or company.

Call our anonymous hotline for free at 844-LEAF411 (844-532-3411) or chat us from the Leaf411.org homepage during hotline hours for help with your cannabis questions. 

The Leaf411 cannabis nurse hotline provides free, anonymous education and directional support to the general public about the safe use of legal cannabis. We partner with select business members who meet our rigorous standards to extend our education and outreach efforts.

Various cannabis tinctures and other products, with cannabis flower (bud) in foreground.

Low-Dose Cannabis Options for Seniors

The cannabis market has responded to the growing popularity of microdosing by producing low-dose edibles and tinctures that make it easy to find the right dose. Many of these products are available in both THC versions as well as CBD:THC ratios.

Among our Leaf411 supporting members, Ripple offers a range of low-dose dissolvable powders that can be added to beverages or food or sprinkled directly on your tongue. Our member Wana Brands also provides low-dose vegan-friendly gummies, including new fast-acting gummies that take effect on average within 5-15 minutes. Medically Correct is another of our supporting members that is developing low-dose products tailored to different needs, including the recently launched Quiq brand, also designed for fast onset. Also, our supporting member Altus produces the Lucky Edibles micro-tart line with each tart containing only 2 mg THC. 

Fast-acting products like Ripple, Wana and Quiq are ideal for the person who has trouble falling asleep versus staying asleep. Something that you swallow is vital because these products tend to last 6-8 hours in your system, providing a longer sleep cycle than inhaled products that typically last about 2-4 hours. Gummies and tablets can be an excellent choice since they tend to be easier to cut into small pieces versus a chocolate that may crumble. 

It’s important to always pay attention to the dose size listed on product packaging. For edibles, in particular, there’s not one standard size or dose. One brand might produce 10 mg THC gummies, while a different brand’s gummies are 5 mg. Products like THC-infused candy bars contain multiple doses, typically with each square serving as a separate dose. Likewise, cannabis tinctures will list a dose on the bottle which you can measure out using the bottle dropper.