Sleep disorders can be classified into major groups that include insomnia, sleep-related breathing disorders, parasomnias, sleep-related movement disorders, and circadian rhythm sleep–wake disorders (Sateia, 2014). Fifty million to 70 million adults in the United States report having some type of sleep disorder (ASA, 2016). In 2010, insomnia generated 5.5 million office visits in the United States (Ford et al., 2014). There is some evidence to suggest that the endocannabinoid system may have a role in sleep. THC is associated in a dose-dependent manner with changes in slow-wave sleep, which is critical for learning and memory consolidation. Cannabis may also have effects on sleep latency, decreasing time to sleep onset at low doses and increasing time to sleep onset at higher doses (Garcia and Salloum, 2015). Thus, cannabinoids could have a role in treating sleep disorders.
Are Cannabis or Cannabinoids an Effective Treatment for Improving Sleep Outcomes?
The review by Whiting et al. (2015) was the most recent good-quality review. Two RCTs (54 participants) evaluated cannabinoids (nabilone, dronabinol) for the treatment of sleep problems. A trial deemed to have a high risk of bias conducted in 22 patients with obstructive sleep apnea showed a greater benefit of dronabinol (maximum dose of 10 mg daily) than with a placebo on sleep apnea/hypopnea index (mean difference from baseline −19.64, p = 0.02) at 3 weeks follow-up. A crossover trial deemed to have a low risk of bias in 32 patients with fibromyalgia found improvements for nabilone 0.5 mg daily compared with 10 mg amitriptyline in insomnia (mean difference from baseline, −3.25, 95% CI = −5.26 to −1.24) and greater sleep restfulness (mean difference from baseline, 0.48, 95% CI = 0.01–0.95) at 2 weeks follow-up. Although the antidepressant amitriptyline is an established treatment for fibromyalgia, it is not FDA approved for insomnia, and its use is limited by adverse effects.
Nineteen trials (3,231 participants) enrolled patients with other conditions (chronic pain or multiple sclerosis) and reported on sleep outcomes. Nabiximols (13 studies), THC/CBD capsules (2 studies), smoked THC (2 studies), and dronabinol or nabilone were compared to a placebo. Sleep outcomes were assessed at 2–15 weeks after randomization. Eleven of the 19 trials were judged to have a high risk of bias, 6 had an uncertain risk of bias, and the other 2 were judged to have a low risk of bias. The meta-analysis found greater improvements with cannabinoids in sleep quality among 8 trials (weighted mean difference [WMD], −0.58, 95% CI = −0.87 to −0.29) and sleep disturbance among 3 trials (WMD, −0.26, 95% CI = −0.52 to 0.00). These improvements in sleep quality and sleep disturbance were rated on a 10-point scale and would be considered small improvements. The summary estimate showing benefit was based primarily on studies of nabiximols.
The committee did not identify any good-quality primary literature that reported on medical cannabis as an effective treatment to improve sleep outcomes and that were published subsequent to the data collection period of the most recently published good- or fair-quality systematic review addressing the research question.
Discussion of Findings
A high-quality systematic review found moderate evidence suggesting that cannabinoids (primarily nabiximols) improve short-term sleep outcomes in patients with sleep disturbance associated with obstructive sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, or multiple sclerosis. However, the single study using an active comparator used a drug (amitriptyline) that is considered second-line treatment due to the availability of newer, more effective treatments that have fewer adverse effects. The committee did not identify any clinical trials that evaluated the effects of cannabinoids in patients with primary chronic insomnia.
There is moderate evidence that cannabinoids, primarily nabiximols, are an effective treatment to improve short-term sleep outcomes in individuals with sleep disturbance associated with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis.
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