Cannabeginners: CBD for Sleep

The science is more complicated than you think.
CBD
Courtesy Wikipedia

One of the most common reasons why people use cannabis or hemp products is for help with sleep. Those who are looking for help sleeping but want to avoid feeling high generally assume CBD will help them sleep without any intoxication, but actually, depending on the dose of CBD they take, it could make it even harder to get to sleep.

The Discovery and History of CBD

Though cannabinol (CBN) has the honor of being the first cannabinoid ever discovered, CBD was a close second. In 1940, Roger Adams and his colleagues at the University of Illinois first isolated CBN and then later that same year isolated CBD. At that point, little was known about the effects or the chemical structure. 

It took until 1963, when Raphael Mechoulam elucidated the chemical structure of CBD, one year before elucidating THC. As soon as THC’s intoxicating effects were discovered by Raphael Mechoulam in 1964, CBD was largely ignored, even by the research community. Then in 2008, with the advent of the first cannabis testing lab in the world, CBD was “rediscovered” and has since been the subject of considerable study. 

CBD for Sleep

In 1981, one of the earliest studies to explore CBD’s relationship to sleep showed that “Subjects receiving 160 mg cannabidiol reported having slept significantly more than those receiving placebo.” While some of the volunteers in the study used doses lower than 160mg, those lower doses were not reported to have had as strong of a sedating effect. A 2012 literature review summarized the extent of research over the preceding three decades on CBD and sedation, “clinical trials suggest that high-dose oral CBD (150–600 mg/d) may exert a therapeutic effect for social anxiety disorder, insomnia and epilepsy, but also that it may cause mental sedation.” The following year, a study done on rats found those sedating effects applied to rodents as well as humans, with the rodents experiencing increased “total sleep time, in addition to increasing sleep latency.” 

Most recently, a 2019 study using people rather than rodents, found sleep benefits for some patients, but their data is limited because the dosing was inconsistent. Still, they observed that “Sleep scores improved within the first month in 48 patients (66.7%) but fluctuated over time,” that fluctuation largely happened once patients were receiving outpatient care and consistent dosing became even more difficult. The researchers did not do a good job reporting what dose of CBD corresponded to what benefit for sleep, but they noted the past research that higher doses did result in a longer “duration of sleep.”

CBD for Alertness

Astute readers might now be wondering, if the research is pretty consistent that a high dose of CBD, generally over 160 mg of CBD, produces feelings of sedation, what about a lower dose? That is where the science of CBD and sleep gets really complicated, and is a perfect illustration of the biphasic properties of many cannabinoids (where low doses produce one effect, and higher doses produce a radically different response). 

In 1977, four years before Carlini and Cunha released their study showing high doses of CBD could improve sleep, Monti demonstrated that CBD could cause rats to sleep less. In 2006, Eric Rodríguez led a team of researchers, including Raphael Mechoulam, on a study which expanded on Monti’s research and showed that low doses of CBD “induces alertness” and suggested “it might be of therapeutic value in sleep disorders such as excessive somnolence.” Rodríguez followed up on his study two years later, which showed CBD was “a wake-inducing compound” at low doses. In 2014, Rodríguez did a literature review of CBD’s effects on sleep, which noted “contradictory results on the effect of CBD on sleep,” going back to the earliest days of CBD research. Rodríguez’ literature review pointed to differences in “route of administration, vehicle used, doses, subjects, etc” as a cause for the paradoxically different effects of CBD on sleep and alertness. In a 2019 study on narcolepsy, Rodríguez and his team suggested that “CBD might prevent sleepiness in narcolepsy.”

What Do Consumers Actually Want?

Now that we have dug into the research on CBD’s effects on sleep, let’s take a moment to talk about what it is consumers are actually looking for when they are looking for a CBD product to help with sleep. It is important for individuals to ask themselves, “What is it that is preventing me from sleeping?” Is their core issue a lack of sedation, i.e. they can’t get tired? Or is it racing thoughts, pain, or something else that is preventing them from sleeping? The Budtender’s Guide is a wonderful handbook for aspiring budtenders and consumers alike to have a deeper understanding of different cannabis products and the medical effects of cannabis.

If someone’s core issue is not getting drowsy, in other words, they do not feel tired, then it is likely that they will need a much higher dose of CBD to achieve their desired outcome. If their main problem is pain, racing thoughts, or one of the myriad of other things CBD can help with, they may be able to use a lower dose to achieve their desired results for sleep but they should take their CBD a couple of hours before bed so the alerting effects have some time to wear off.

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