If you’re desperate for quality sleep, you’re not alone: About 70 million U.S. adults suffer from chronic sleep problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
While vast resources are available to help improve sleep—from supplements and medications to sleep coaches and high-tech gadgets—researchers are considering CBD an alternative.
The Endocannabinoid System and Sleep
Understanding the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is essential to understanding the effect CBD may have on sleep. The word “cannabinoid,” contained within the name of the system, refers to the active constituents of the cannabis sativa plant that impact the ECS.
“The endocannabinoid system is a complex neurochemical network in the body that regulates various bodily functions, including emotions, pain and sleep,” says Chantel Strachan, M.D., a board-certified internal medicine physician and headache specialist at Columbia Doctors and Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. While the body naturally releases endocannabinoid molecules, external sources of cannabinoids, such as CBD, can affect the body via the ECS, she adds.
How Can CBD Benefit Sleep?
CBD is the second most abundant compound in the cannabis sativa plant, and many studies suggest it may indirectly benefit sleep. In fact, CBD—which doesn’t cause the intoxicatingly psychoactive “high” associated with delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—might help people with different sleep disorders, including insomnia and restless leg syndrome, as well as other conditions known to negatively impact sleep, according to research.
For instance, CBD may help people relax by easing anxiety and pain, two factors that may make it difficult for someone to fall or stay asleep, says Dr. Strachan.
The hypothalamus plays a role in several sleep-related functions, including regulating body temperature and synchronizing sleep patterns. CBD can help people with insomnia because it works with the hypothalamus to regulate stress, says Dr. Whitelocke. “Insomnia results from an overactive stress reaction that’s spilling into a rest time when we’re not trying to process conscious trauma,” he adds. “CBD can suppress this dysregulated cycle of stress hormone overactivation and equalize the sleep and wake rhythm through counteracting hormones.”
In a study examining the effects of cannabis on insomnia, researchers found CBD more effectively decreased symptoms of insomnia than delta-9 THC, which is the most abundant active constituent in the cannabis sativa plant that has an intoxicatingly psychoactive effect
Many studies have found CBD to be a potential treatment for anxiety disorders. While more research is needed, studies link CBD use to improved sleep due to its ability to decrease anxiety.
“CBD’s well-established role in reducing anxiety—without causing stony lethargy that can accompany THC products—makes it an ideal tool to calm intrusive thoughts before laying down to sleep,” says Dr. Whitelocke. More specifically, CBD acts on the endocannabinoid receptors in the limbic system—a set of brain regions known to play a role in many important functions, including the regulation of emotions, storage of memories, sexual arousal, olfaction (or our sense of smell) and forming of learning patterns. When the limbic system is out of equilibrium, such as when an intrusive memory leads to anxiety and insomnia, CBD activates the ECS to help repress that memory and, consequently, facilitate sleep. “By restoring hormone balance,” says Dr. Whitelocke, “CBD acts as the great equalizer.”
Should You Use CBD for Sleep?
Ultimately, the choice to use CBD for sleep is between you and your health care provider. Some reasons to consider CBD for sleep include wanting to try a plant-based option or seeking an alternative to conventional treatments that haven’t been effective, says Dr. Strachan.
CBD is a safe alternative to prescription sleep medications, adds Dr. Whitelocke. “Especially when you consider the relatively low toxicity of CBD products,” he says, “using CBD for sleep is a wise alternative for almost anybody seeking to improve the quality and quantity of restorative rest.”