It’s hard to sift through all the claims made for CBD’s benefits and not be left somewhat confused. Perhaps never before in the history of modern medicine have so many applications been touted for a single substance. CBD is promoted as an effective treatment for anxiety, depression, migraines, fibromyalgia, epilepsy, and insomnia, among dozens of other conditions. CBD has also been found to improve cognitive function—that is, CBD is good for your brain.
Does CBD Make You Sleepy
The confusing part about the claims regarding CBD and sleep is this: how can something be effective for the treatment of insomnia yet also be useful for improving mental clarity and alertness? That is, does CBD make you sleepy, or not?
The answers to these questions are even more confusing, at first blush: yes, CBD helps you sleep, and no, CBD does not make you sleepy.
This makes no sense, right? Logic would seem to indicate that if CBD helps you fall asleep, CBD makes you sleepy. If so, this would mean that daytime use of CBD is not a good idea for those hoping to be productive, unless taking a nap is your idea of productivity.
A growing body of scientific knowledge does indeed show that CBD is effective in treating insomnia and other sleep disorders. But how CBD helps promote more and better sleep is markedly different than most sleep medications—or even its cannabis counterpart, THC, which is also used to treat sleeping disorders—in that CBD is not a sedative. Instead, CBD gets at many of the root causes of insomnia, rather than just its symptoms.
Let’s break this down. It’s a crucial question, this matter of sleep and CBD, both because insomnia is a national epidemic (more than 60 million Americans suffer some form of sleep disorder) and because CBD’s effectiveness in treating it tells a story that clarifies a lot of the confusion surrounding this seemingly miraculous cure-it-all.
In a 2006 study, researchers gave rats CBD in an attempt to better understand the CBD impact on the sleep-wake cycle. What they found was surprising. During the day, the rats were more alert after taking CBD. At night, the rats slept better. What this study and other subsequent research suggest is that CBD may help users find a more balanced sleep-wake cycle by providing a better quality of wakefulness accompanied by a better sense of calm when it’s time to sleep.
Dosage also matters. Several studies have shown that in small doses, CBD increases wakefulness, but in larger doses it promotes sleep. In one such study that specifically focused on individuals suffering from insomnia, results showed that taking 160 mg CBD daily increased total sleep time and decreased the frequency of arousals during the night, while lower doses tended to only increase wakefulness. Scientists call this effect on the sleep-wake cycle “biphasic,” meaning CBD has opposite effects depending on the dosage administered.
But it’s important to understand that CBD, regardless of dosage, does not directly induce sleep. Instead, it reduces key factors that contribute to sleeplessness—anxiety and stress response. Put another way, the main symptom of insomnia is lack of sleep; sleeping pills attack this symptom by simply knocking you out, whereas CBD relieves the underlying causes of insomnia.
CBD does this by interacting with our body’s Endocannabinoid System (ECS), the large system of receptors found throughout the nervous system that regulates many different functions, including our stress and anxiety responses, body temperature, and even mood levels; CBD, through the ECS, helps improve how our body regulates these functions.
Our understanding of the ECS and its importance to overall health is new since the ECS was only discovered in the early 1990s. Cannabis research prior to that largely focused on THC, the more dramatically psychoactive cannabinoid which does indeed have directly sedative qualities (but with chronic use tends over time tends to interrupt the body’s natural circadian sleep cycle). More recent studies have brought CBD increasingly into focus.
CBD helps balance the ESC and thus encourages the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which are thrown off by the many artificial stressors we encounter in modern life—such as lack of exposure to direct sunlight, sedentary lifestyles, and exposure to artificial light in a multitude of ways, including cell phones, computers, and TVs most people spend the majority of their days (and nights) engaged with. Put simply, so much of the ill-health endemic to modern society — from cardiovascular diseases to insomnia—results from these stresses. Our bodies often cannot keep up.
The excitement over CBD’s effectiveness at treating sleep disorders is in part because so many pharmaceutical solutions—sleeping pills—have tended to do more harm than good. One overview of 40 studies on prescription sleeping pills showed that 39 of the studies found the use of sedative drugs was “associated with excess mortality”—that is, the use of such prescription drugs resulted in a 4.6 times greater chance of dying. Additionally, side effects, such as the fogginess known as “next day functional impairment” lead to both a lower quality of life and hard-to-quantify risk of death via auto accidents and even simple falls by elderly users.
What the human body tends to need when under stress is not artificial sedation but a return to its own natural systems of regulation. CBD has drawn so much attention so quickly because of its enormous ability to do just this. Scientists describe the ECS as “the primary homeostatic regulator of human physiology,” meaning it helps bring all our biological systems into balance; CBD helps regulate this regulator.
Italian scientist Vicenzo DiMarzo, in a 1998 paper, famously summed up the ECS’s broad array functions as, “relax, eat, sleep, forget and protect.”
When CBD interacts with the receptors within the ECS, cognitive functions improve and the brain is able to respond to stresses more effectively. Among the many beneficial impacts, this has is the improvement to sleep.
CBD does not make you sleepy. The opposite of stress is calm. CBD has a calming effect and makes sleeping naturally easier.
Doctor Mike Hansen, MD
Internal Medicine | Pulmonary Disease | Critical Care Medicine
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