If you’ve ever abruptly quit smoking weed after using it habitually, you might have noticed your dreams were wildly vivid. While it might seem counterintuitive for your dreams to get more creative once you eliminate cannabis, this is actually a common phenomenon for regular users when they take a break.
The reason why this happens is that cannabis suppresses REM sleep, and it bounces back when you quit using it, explains pharmacologist and psychiatrist Dr. Samoon Ahmad.
There are five different stages of sleep, the last of which is the REM, or rapid eye movement, stage. You cycle through these stages throughout the night over hour and a half to two hour periods.
During REM, your breathing becomes more rapid and irregular, your eyes jerk, your muscles are temporarily paralyzed, your blood pressure and heart rate increase, and the body is unable to regulate its temperature. Your brain waves during this stage are on par with those when you’re awake. REM is also when most of your dreams happen, and if you’re awoken during this stage, you’ll remember your dreams more clearly.
Because cannabis users have less REM sleep, they also have fewer dreams, Ahmad says. “So, for a long time people didn’t recognize this, but once people stop smoking suddenly there’s a rebound phenomena where people can have quite vivid dreams,” he says.
Dreams are important for processing your daily encounters and various aspects of life. By suppressing REM, you also suppress the functions that go along with it. “One of those functions is reliving all the things you have experienced and coming to terms with them, as it were,” says neurologist and somnologist, or sleep expert, Dr. Hans Hamburger. “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.”
That’s in part why cannabis is often so helpful for post-traumatic stress disorder. By suppressing dreams and stresses of daily life, patients who are dealing with trauma and nightmares from PTSD may begin to heal.
However, when you stop using cannabis regularly, the REM stage bounces back more intensely. “It is a temporary attempt to catch up on all the dreaming you missed when you were smoking weed,” says Hamburger. “”It usually goes away after two to three weeks. Your body will know when it’s caught up and ready to go back to business as usual.”