According to the National Sleep Foundation, 50 to 70 million Americans experience insomnia at some point in their lives. Based on what I’m hearing from my patients, this number is skyrocketing, thanks to COVID-19. If getting some shut-eye is becoming harder for you, know that you’re not alone.

Sleep is crucial to our physical and mental functioning — it is essential to all of the body’s repair and restore functions. When at rest, the body learns what’s wrong and physically “relearns” how to contend with the complexities and stressors of everyday life. Restful sleep has been proven to improve memory recall, regulate metabolism, and reduce mental fatigue. During sleep, the brain reorganizes and recharges while the body removes waste byproducts accumulated during the day. It’s almost as if our dream life represents our struggle to get back to balance.

When people are sleep deprived, they suffer. Their cognitive abilities decline, their behavior and judgment become erratic. Fatigue makes us more emotional, anxious; more strung out, more on edge. It’s no fun, and yes, it gets worse as we age in large part due to hormones, prescription medications, and chronic diseases.

As you’ve probably noticed, not all sleep aids work for everyone. There is no perfect drug that produces a normal sleep and dream pattern like a truly restful night’s sleep. Many medications produce a tolerance that requires higher and higher doses. When some people stop taking them, they suffer withdrawal symptoms, including even more severe insomnia. 

Prescription sleep aids (i.e., Ambien, Lunesta, etc.) don’t deliver the same restorative immune benefits as natural sleep. They replace our normal sleep cycles and dreams and result in “counterfeit sleep”. Studies show the type of “sleep” these drugs produce is lacking in the largest, deepest brainwaves. Instead, they produce a type of sleep amnesia — you forget that you had a crappy night! Benzodiazepines (i.e. Xanax, Klonopin, etc.) are often prescribed for insomnia, but they are only supposed to be used short term, two to four weeks maximum. If taken longer, they can be as addictive as opioids. Weaning from Klonipin and Ambien can take up to a year because of the severe withdrawal symptoms and emotional dependence.  

Why and how does CBD and Cannabis work for sleep disruption?

Did you know that our brains make their own internal cannabis molecules (endogenous cannabinoids)? It’s true. Anandamide (named after the Sanskrit word for bliss, ananda), helps temper stress and balance the nervous system, so we are not spiraling out of control on high sympathetic overdrive. The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is a system that modulates and interfaces with all of the other systems throughout your body. It regulates physical functions, such as movement, pain sensation, and immune responses, and cognitive or mental capacities, like perception, mood and memory.

Anxiety, stress, and chronic sleep deprivation all inhibit GABA, a naturally occurring brain chemical that directs neurons to slow down or stop firing. This neurotransmitter also helps to induce sleep, relax muscles and calm down. In essence, GABA directs the body to chill out.

CBD and Cannabis modulates GABA, helping return the body to its more normal functions. Cannabinoids direct the brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces a state of calm. It may help stop the racing thoughts that cause disrupted sleep and panicked awakenings during the night. Cannabis can also be used to treat what is called “parasomnias,” sleep disorders characterized by abnormal movements, behaviors, or perceptions during sleep, like jaw grinding, sleepwalking, or nightmares. Not only does CBD and Cannabis reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, but it decreases overall body inflammation and calms the nervous system. If integrated carefully throughout the day, it can help balance your circadian rhythm and help you with effortless sleep.

The bottom line on using CBD and Cannabis for insomnia:  

  • CBD and Cannabis can be either sedating or stimulating depending on the dose. Cannabis is plant based medicine. It is as individualized as human biology. Every person has a different metabolism, health background, and lifestyle.
  • CBD and Cannabis may help decrease the dosage, frequency, or need for prescription sleep aids.
  • Using cannabis medicine is not “take two pills and call me in the morning.” One size does not fit all. It is important to note that CBD and Cannabis can interact with prescription medications. It is best to consult your specialist and a physician experienced in integrative cannabis medicine. 

Dr. Junella Chin is a world-renowned integrative cannabis physician who has been featured on Forbes, LA Times, and CNN and is co-author or her book, Cannabis and CBD for Health and Wellness.

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  • Dr. Chin is an advocate for a better understanding of the science of cannabinoid medicine. She is a world-renowned integrative cannabis physician who has been featured on ForbesLA Times and USA Today. She is co-author of her book, Cannabis and CBD for Health and Wellness. A chronic pain survivor, she dedicated her medical career to finding effective, alternative approaches to patient care. Dr. Chin earned her B.S. from Cornell, M.D. from Touro University, Medical Acupuncture Certification at Harvard, and was a researcher at Columbia University’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Aging and Women's Health.