Written by: Dagmara Mach
-Studies have established a clear link between cannabinoids and sleep
-CBD has been found to lead to wakefulness in low doses, and sedation in higher doses
-Recent research suggests CBD may be a useful sleep aid with few to no negative side effects
Do you ever have trouble falling asleep or wish you could do so faster? Research suggests CBD may help. With nearly 50% of adults in the United States reporting experiencing sleep difficulties and high rates of dissatisfaction with the side effects and effectiveness of traditional sleep aids, cannabidiol rich hemp oil is emerging as a potential natural therapy for sleep improvement.
CBD or cannabidiol and THC or tetrahydrocannabinol are the two main and most well-researched cannabinoids found in the Cannabis plant. Unlike the psychoactive THC, CBD does not result in a high like that associated with consuming marijuana. It also does not appear to produce negative psychological side effects such as anxiety, paranoia, and memory impairment, making its therapeutic benefits useful in everyday situations.
Sleep is a critical component of our everyday lives and its quality or lack thereof has immense potential to impact our economy as a whole. According to the National Institutes of Health, over one-third of American adults report daytime sleepiness that interferes with work, social functioning and driving at least a few days out of every month. This sleepiness is estimated to cost the United States $411 billion dollars annually, a whopping 2.28% of our GDP.
Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests the therapeutic potential of CBD in alleviating insomnia and promoting more restful sleep, and cannabinoids have long been shown to affect the sleep-wake cycle. However, despite studies examining the effects of cannabinoid administration on sleep dating back to the 1970s, research on the use of CBD for sleep optimization remains limited and few clinical trials exist. Thus, although preliminary studies suggest that CBD may be a useful sleep aid with few to no negative side effects, it’s mechanisms of action and dose-response remain somewhat ambiguous.
While research into the effects of cannabinoids on the sleep cycle began in the 1970s and a link was established early on, it wasn’t until more recently that researchers became aware of the varying effects and mechanisms of action triggered by the more than 100 different cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. This awareness was a critical turning point in the discovery of CBD’s sedative and non-psychoactive effects making it a prime target for sleep therapy research.
CBD and other cannabinoids interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system. Every human, dog, cat, mammal, amphibian, and even the ancient sea squirt possesses an internal cannabinoid system. Implicated in a wide variety of biological functions, the endocannabinoid system has been shown to play an important role in the regulation of the circadian rhythm sleep-wake cycle. Available data supports a relationship between endocannabinoid signaling and circadian processes (Vaugn, et al 2010) and indicates that the endocannabinoid system has the capability to modulate circadian rhythms (Sanford, 2008).
When our endocannabinoid systems are activated by either internal or external cannabinoids like CBD or THC, a number of therapeutic reactions appear to be triggered in our bodies. These include sedation, anxiolytic effects, neuroprotection, neurogenesis or the formation of new brain cells, anti-inflammatory effects, pain relief, a boost in metabolism, feelings of improved well being and a positive impact on brain levels of the depression-related neurotransmitter serotonin. In light of all of these positive health effects, it is somewhat unclear how much of the sleep benefits experienced by hemp oil users are related to these markers versus a direct effect on the sleep cycle.
Though the link between cannabinoids and the sleep cycle was established decades ago, it was limited by our incomplete understanding of cannabis and its constituents. In the 1970s, preliminary research focused namely on THC and marijuana. This early research included several studies examining polysomnography (PSG)-based sleep. Polysomnography, a diagnostic tool in sleep medicine, is a type of sleep study that records brain waves, blood oxygen level, heart rate, and breathing, as well as leg and eye movements.
These early studies found that cannabis had an effect on sleep, but perhaps because they mainly looked at THC rich marijuana, their findings were mixed. For instance, one THC study showed a decrease in sleep onset latency, or the time it takes individuals to transition from full wakefulness to sleep (Cousens & DiMascio, 1973), while different studies did not replicate these findings.
Another study examining the effects of THC observed increased waking after sleep onset and a decrease in REM sleep (Pivik et al, 1972). REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, is a phase of sleep unique to birds and mammals. It is generally characterized by low muscle tone throughout the body, vivid dreaming, and random/rapid movement of the eyes. REM is the 5th stage of sleep and happens throughout the sleep cycle. Experts believe REM sleep helps us process emotions and solidify certain memories, but researchers are unclear as to how much REM sleep is optimal and whether varying amounts can be pathological. For example, one recent study found an association between higher amounts of REM sleep and depression, but it was unclear whether one caused the other.
Still other THC focused work from this period found a decrease in slow-wave sleep latency, an increase in slow-wave sleep, and an increase in total sleep time (Feinberg, et al. 1975 & Barratt et al, 1974). Slow-wave sleep, or SWS, refers to phase 3 of the sleep cycle. Thought to play an important role in memory consolidation, SWS sleep is the deepest phase of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Sleepwalking and dreaming can occur during SWS.
As the research community’s understanding of cannabis and its constituents became more sophisticated and the varying effects of different cannabinoids were discovered, there was a resurgence in sleep research focusing on the types of cannabinoids (THC vs CBD), the ratio of cannabinoids, dosage, the timing of administration, and the route of administration, all of which have been demonstrated to play a critical role in outcomes.
CBD has been found to have biphasic effects on wakefulness. In low doses, CBD acts as a stimulant (Carlini & Cunha, 1981, Nicholson et al 2004). In medium and higher doses CBD exhibits sedative properties (Nicholson et al 2004, Zuardi 2008). These sedative properties have made CBD a viable research target for sleep disorders.
In 1981, Carlini and Cunha published a CBD study on individuals with insomnia. They showed that administration of 160 mg/day of CBD resulted in increased total sleep time and decreased frequency of nighttime arousals. Although their study showed that CBD administration reduced dream recall, they did not find CBD to produce any ‘hangover’ effects.
In 2004 Nicholson and colleagues published a pilot study in humans showing that high-dose CBD was associated with sleep improvements. Further, unlike the use of THC as a sleep aid, which studies have reported to produce next-day memory impairment as well as increased sleepiness and mood changes, CBD did not appear to result in these negative side effects.
In a 2012 study examining the effect of medium and high dose CBD in rats, Hsiao and colleagues found that CBD blocked anxiety-induced REM sleep suppression and increased the percentage of total sleep time. Similarly, in 2013, Chagas and colleagues published a study that found an increase in the total percentage of sleep in rats after the administration of mid-range and high-dose CBD injections as compared to placebo. The following year, Chagas and colleagues published another study on four adults with REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) and Parkinson’s disease. RBD is characterized by the loss of muscle rigidity during REM sleep accompanying nightmares and can involve individuals acting out behaviors associated with dreams. Their study found that CBD was tolerated well by all patients and efficacious in suppressing behaviors associated with RBD.
A recent and allegedly first of its kind double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical study from the Center for Applied Health Sciences looked at the effects of CBD rich hemp oil extract consumption on 65 overweight, but otherwise healthy adults. Individuals who took the hemp oil extract every day over a period of six weeks experienced a 22% improvement in sleep quality and a 21% improvement in sleep quantity. They also reported experiencing a 12.5% improvement in pleasure from life.
Another study from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University recorded the effects of hemp oil use on 72 patients with anxiety and sleep-related disorders over a month-long period. After one month of hemp oil use, 67% of participants reported improved sleep, while 79% reported experiencing less anxiety.
In a 2018 study by Vigil and colleagues, 409 individuals with insomnia used a mobile app to measure which characteristics of medical Cannabis flower were associated with changes in perceived insomnia. Participants recorded real-time ratings of self-perceived insomnia severity levels prior to and following consumption over 1056 cannabis administration sessions. The study found that while cannabis as a whole improved sleep rating, CBD was associated with greater statistically significant symptom relief than THC.
Although research is still in its infancy, studies point to the ability of medium to high doses of CBD to increase total sleep time, decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, and reduce problem sleep behaviors like RBD related sleepwalking and the number of times individuals wake during the night.
If you are ready to try CBD as a sleep aid, be sure to select a high-quality hemp product and a healthy method of administration. CBD rich full-spectrum hemp oils can be vaporized, taken orally, and applied as topical treatments, which is probably not the best administration choice for alleviating insomnia. Because there are some bioavailability caveats when it comes to edibles, we recommend holding the full spectrum hemp oil under your tongue for one or two minutes to get the most out of your product. This method helps your body absorb the highest concentration of CBD without any harmful side effects.
Check that your oil is produced from a proven cannabis source like an all-natural Colorado sunshine fueled hemp-farm run by farmers who care about the integrity of their product. Make sure the company you source from has not watered down the product with fillers. Avoid anything with corn syrup, propylene glycol, GMOs, pesticides, trans fats, or artificial additives.
Look for products that are cold processed and lab tested. Lab testing can help assure consistency and verify that the product you’re receiving is free of bacteria, pesticides, solvent residues, mold, and other contaminants.
Carlini EA, Cunha JM. Hypnotic and antiepileptic effects of cannabidiol. J Clin Pharmacol. 1981;21(8–9 Suppl):417S–27S.
Chagas MH, Crippa JA, Zuardi AW, Hallak JE, Machado-de-Sousa JP, Hirotsu C, et al. Effects of acute systemic administration of cannabidiol on sleep-wake cycle in rats. J Psychopharmacol. 2013;27(3):312–6
Chagas MH, Eckeli AL, Zuardi AW, Pena-Pereira MA, SobreiraNeto MA, Sobreira ET, et al. Cannabidiol can improve complex sleep-related behaviours associated with rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder in Parkinson's disease patients: a case series. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2014;39(5):564–6.
Cousens K, DiMascio A. (−) Delta 9 THC as an hypnotic. An experimental study of three dose levels. Psychopharmacologia. 1973;33(4):355–64.
Hsiao YT, Yi PL, Li CL, Chang FC. Effect of cannabidiol on sleep disruption induced by the repeated combination tests consisting of open field and elevated plus-maze in rats. Neuropharmacology. 2012;62(1):373–84
Nicholson, A. N., Turner, C., Stone, B. M., & Robson, P. J. (2004). Effect of Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol on nocturnal sleep and early-morning behavior in young adults. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology, 24(3), 305-313.
Pivik RT, Zarcone V, Dement WC, Hollister LE. Delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol and synhexl: effects on human sleep patterns. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 1972;13(3):426–35.
Sanford AE. Cannabinoids and hamster circadian activity rhythms. Brain Res. 2008;1222:141–8.
Vaughn LK, Denning G, Stuhr KL, de Wit H, Hill MN, Hillard CJ. Endocannabinoid signalling: has it got rhythm? Br J Pharmacol. 2010;160(3):530–43
Vigil, J., Stith, S., Diviant, J., Brockelman, F., Keeling, K, & Hall, B. (2018). Effectiveness of raw, natural medical Cannabis flower for treating insomnia under naturalistic conditions. Medicines, 5(3), 75.
Zuardi AW. Cannabidiol: from an inactive cannabinoid to a drug with wide spectrum of action. Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 2008;30(3):271– 80.