Sleep disturbances are the most common health problem in America. Those with sleep issues are poorly served by prescription and over-the-counter sleeping pills and other pharmaceuticals, which have serious risks.
CBD and other plant cannabinoids show promise for treating insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and other sleep-related disorders.
- CBD co-administered with THC improves sleep more efficaciously than single-molecule medications.
- Chronic, heavy consumption of THC-dominant cannabis can disrupt healthy sleep patterns.
- Our ability to be awake, fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling rested is part of an internal biological process regulated by circadian rhythms and the endocannabinoid system.
Although sleep is essential for our health, its biological purpose is not fully understood. Oddly, the seemingly inactive state of sleep is actually a dynamic and critical process that helps us store memories, build immunity, repair tissue, regulate metabolism and blood pressure, control appetite and blood sugar, and process learning, along with a myriad of other physiological processes – all of which are regulated by the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institute of Health (NIH), new findings suggest “sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.”
Poor sleep is the number one reported medical complaint in the Unites States and a serious public health concern. The average adult needs between seven and eight hours of sleep per day. Yet, 10-30 million Americans regularly don’t get enough sleep.
Over 60 percent of American adults report having problems sleeping several nights per week.
Over 40 million Americans suffer from more than 70 different sleep disorders. The most common sleep-related ailments include:
- Insomnia - when one cannot fall asleep or stay asleep.
- Sleep apnea - which involves impaired breathing while sleeping.
- Restless leg syndrome - characterized by tingling, discomfort and even pain in the legs that increases at night and is relieved by movement.
- Circadian rhythm disorders - when one’s internal clock is off and one’s sleep patterns are disturbed.
- Parasomnias - which entails abnormal movements and activities while sleeping, including sleep walking and nightmares.
- Excessive daytime sleepiness - when an individual experiences persistent drowsiness during daylight hours from narcolepsy or another medical condition.
Poor sleep is a risk factor for serious illness. Compared to people who get enough sleep, adults who are short-sleepers (less than 7 hours per 24-hour period) are more likely to experience one or more of 10 chronic health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, stroke and depression.
Those with chronic illnesses are at greater risk for insomnia, which exacerbates their discomfort. Comorbid medical disorders – including conditions that cause hypoxemia (abnormally low blood oxygen levels) and dyspnea (difficult or labored breathing), gastroesophageal reflux disease, pain, and neurodegenerative diseases – have a 75-95 percent increased risk of insomnia.Pills that kill
In 2016, according to the industry research firm MarketsandMarkets, Americans spent $3.38 billion on prescription sedatives and hypnotics, over-the-counter (OTC) sleep drugs, and herbal sleep aids. It’s projected that the market for such products will experience about a 4.5 percent growth rate between now and 2021.
The quest for good night’s sleep can be hazardous to one’s health. Daniel F. Kripke, MD, sleep expert and co-founder of Research at Scripps Clinic Vitebri Family Sleep Center, discusses the dangers of sleep aids in his paper “Hypnotic drug risks of mortality, infection, depression, and cancer: but lack of benefit.”
Dr. Kripke reviewed 40 studies conducted on prescription sleeping pills, which include hypnotic drugs such as zolpidem (Ambien, Edlmar, Intermezzo and Zolpimist), temazepam (Restoril), eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), triazolam (Halcion), flurazepam (Dalmane and Dalmadorm), quazepam, and other barbiturates used for sleep. Of these 40 studies, thirty-nine found that consumption of hypnotics is “associated with excess mortality” to the tune of a 4.6 times greater risk of death for hypnotic users.
Grim statistics: 10,000 deaths per year are directly caused by and attributed to hypnotic drugs, based on medical examiner data. However, large epidemiological studies suggest the number of fatalities may actually be closer to 300,000-500,000 per year. The difference can be attributed to underreported use of hypnotics at the time of death and the fact that prescription hypnotics are rarely listed as the cause of death.
Dr. Kripke concludes that even limited use of sleeping pills causes “next day functional impairment,” increases risk of “on-the-road driver-at-fault crashes,” increases falls and accidental injuries especially among seniors, is associated with “2.1 times” as many new depression incidents compared to randomized placebo recipients, and increases the risk of suicide. Furthermore, the use of opioids combined with hypnotics – two known dose-dependent respiratory suppressants – can be extremely dangerous, especially when mixed with alcohol and other drugs.1Alarming data
Another concern: Data from controlled hypnotics trials resulted in 12 cancers in hypnotic participants compared to zero cancers in the placebo group. (When the FDA conducted the same audit, they found 13 cancers.) But it is unclear if the hypnotics were a causative factor in these cancers or if they were promoting progression of cancer that had previously gone undetected. Animal and in vitro (test tube/petri dish) studies also attest to the pro-cancer potential of hypnotics. To learn more visit Dr. Kripke’s website.
In addition to these risks, meta-data (combined data) from placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials showed participants in the hypnotic groups had a 44 percent higher infection rate than the placebo participants.
Are over-the-counter sleep aids any better? These also have adverse side effects. Most OTC sleeping pills (Benadryl and others) have the antihistamine diphenhydramine as the primary ingredient. It can knock you out, but it’s unlikely to provide truly restful sleep.
In an email exchange with Project CBD, Dr. Kripke writes: “Usage of diphenhydramine is associated with developing Alzheimer’s disease, though which is cause and which is effect is certainly unclear. One well-known aspect of diphenhydramine is that it is anticholinergic [blocks the neurotransmitter acetylcholine], that produces some heart symptoms sometimes as well as digestive symptoms such as constipation. In some patients, also, diphenhydramine at night causes rather a lot of daytime sleepiness.”
A large number of OTC sleep aids also include acetaminophen, a pain reliever that has a narrow therapeutic window – meaning at one dose it’s therapeutic, but the slightest increase can be toxic to the liver. All too often consumers don’t read the warning labels about these drugs and consume them with alcohol and other meds. This can cause liver toxicity and/or fatal respiratory suppression.
OTC sleep aids are intended only for occasional or short-term use – never more than two weeks at one time. Although it is not typically reported in the published literature, those who use OTC and prescription sleep aids find that once they start it’s hard to stop.The endocannabinoid system and sleep
Given the problems with conventional soporifics, medical scientists have been exploring other ways to improve sleep by targeting the endocannabinoid system (ECS). As the primary homeostatic regulator of human physiology, the ECS plays a major role in the sleep-wake cycle and other circadian processes.
Italian scientist Vicenzo DiMarzo summarized the broad regulatory function of the endocannabinoid system in the phrase “Eat, sleep, relax, protect and forget.”
How we fall asleep, stay asleep, wake up, and remain awake is part of an internal biological process regulated by our circadian rhythms and our endocannabinoid system. Circadian rhythms govern a diverse array of actions in the body, including hormone production, heart rate, metabolism, and when to go to sleep and wake up.
It’s as if we have an internal biochemical timer or clock that keeps track of our need for sleep, guides the body to sleep and then influences the intensity of sleep. This biological mechanism is affected by external forces such as travel, medication, food, drink, environment, stress and more.
Key question: Does the endocannabinoid system regulate our experience of circadian rhythms or vice versa?
Evidence of a strong relationship between the two is observed in the sleep-wake cycle fluctuations of anandamide and 2-AG (the brain’s own marijuana-like molecules), along with the metabolic enzymes that create and break down these endogenous cannabinoid compounds.
Anandamide is present in the brain at higher levels at night and it works with the endogenous neurotransmitters oleamide and adenosine to generate sleep. Conversely, 2AG is higher during the day, suggesting that it is involved in promoting wakefulness.
The highly complex sleep-wake cycle is driven by a variety of neurochemicals and molecular pathways.2 Both anandamide and 2AG activate CB1cannabinoid receptors that are concentrated in the central nervous system, including parts of the brain associated with regulating sleep.
CB1 receptors modulate neurotransmitter release in a manner that dials back excessive neuronal activity, thereby reducing anxiety, pain, and inflammation. CB1 receptor expression is thus a key factor in modulating sleep homeostasis.
This is not the case, however, with respect to the CB2, the cannabinoid receptor located primarily in immune cells, the peripheral nervous system, and metabolic tissue. Whereas CB1 receptor expression reflects cyclical circadian rhythms, no such fluctuations have been described for the CB2 receptor.
The challenge of studying and treating sleep disturbances is complicated by the fact that sleep disorders are symptomatic of many chronic illnesses. In many cases, poor sleep results in chronic illness, and chronic illness always involves an underlying imbalance or dysregulation of the endocannabinoid system. Although we still have much to learn about the relationship between the ECS and circadian rhythms, it’s clear that adequate quality sleep is a critical component of restoring and maintaining one’s health.Cannabis for slumber
Cannabinoids have been used for centuries to promote sleepiness and to help people stay asleep. In the acclaimed medical reference Materia Medica, published in the 18th century, cannabis was listed as a ‘narcotica’ and ‘anodyna’ (pain reliever). Its reintroduction to Western medicine by Sir William B. O’Shaughnessy in 1843 led to studies that underscored the remedial properties of “Indian hemp” for sleep disorders.
“Of all anaesthetics ever proposed, Indian hemp is the one which produced a narcotism most closely resembling the natural sleep without causing any extraordinary excitement of the vessels, or any particular suspension of secretions, or without fear of a dangerous reaction, and consecutive paralysis,” German researcher Bernard Fronmueller observed in 1860.
Nine years later Fronmueller reported that in 1000 patients with sleep disturbance, Indian hemp produced cures in 53 percent, partial cure in 21.5 percent, and little or no effects in 25.5 percent.
Sleep-related problems continue to drive a large percentage of people to seek relief with cannabis.
Poor sleep and lack of sleep cause physiological changes in the body after just one night, resulting in slower reaction times, deceased cognitive performance, less energy, aggravated pain and inflammation, and in many cases overeating or cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate “comfort” foods.
A 2014 study by Babson et al notes that approximately 50 percent of long-term cannabis consumers (over 10 years) report using cannabis as a sleep aid. Among medical marijuana patients, 48 percent report using cannabis to help with insomnia.
Another study revealed that 40 percent of insomniacs also suffer from anxiety and depression or another a psychiatric disorder. (Roth, 2007) Would it surprise you to learn that people with mood disorders who use cannabis have the highest rates of sleep benefit at 93 percent? (Babson & Bonn-Miller, 2014)
“Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep.” So said Thomas Aquinas.
CBD, THC, CBN
What about specific plant cannabinoids for sleep?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is alerting or mildly stimulating in moderate doses, while its psychoactive counterpart delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) tends to be sedating. However, the science is somewhat paradoxical.
Research data and anecdotal accounts indicate that CBD and THC have differential effects on sleep – both can be alerting or sedating depending on dosage.