There are many proven strategies to better the quality of your sleep, such as leaning away from blue light and alcohol in the hours before you hop into bed, and opting for room-darkening curtains and keeping the temperature cool. But these days, more and more companies are marketing products that include a unique ingredient for better shuteye: CBD.
Used in everything from trendy lotions and lattes to massage oils, CBD — short for cannabidiol — is one of the most prominent chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. While effects vary from person to person, research shows that CBD can have a calming effect on people.
Humans have been cultivating the cannabis plant since at least 4,000 B.C. Not surprisingly, we’ve developed various strains based on how the plant is used. Hemp is a cannabis plant that contains high levels of CBD and low levels of THC — or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical compound that causes the “high” in cannabis plants. Marijuana, its psychoactive cousin, has low levels of CBD and high levels of THC.
Because of its THC levels and the resulting “high,” marijuana has far fewer uses than hemp. Every day, hemp is utilized in tens of thousands of ways, from rope and insulation to cooking oils, protein powders, and CBD products, which are often derived from hemp and are sometimes marketed as “THC-free.”
What the latest research says about CBD for sleep
CBD interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), a vast receptor system that’s constantly working to maintain homeostasis as we go throughout our day. On its quest to restore balance, the ECS influences nearly every system in the human body. CBD supports the ECS, helping it respond to imbalances in inflammation, brain health, pain, the stress response, and — you guessed it — the sleep-wake cycle.
CBD is biphasic, which means low doses and high doses can cause opposite effects. Those effects also vary from person to person. Whereas melatonin puts you in a state of calmness before sleep, CBD can make you feel alert when it’s taken in low or moderate doses. In higher doses, studies have associated CBD use with increased sleep. However, in one 3-month study where participants with anxiety took 25 mg to 50 mg of CBD, researchers found that sleep improvements decreased month over month.
Researchers are continuing to explore the complex dynamics between CBD and sleep. A recent study of persons suffering from Parkinson’s disease indicated that the cannabinoid was able to reduce REM (rapid eye movement) sleep disorders. A 2019 sleep-quality study found more patients experienced improved sleep than disrupted sleep when using CBD. But when it comes to CBD and sleep, most research backs the need for further study. (One current large-scale clinical study, for example, is exploring the impacts of CBD for patients with diagnosed insomnia.)
Since research is still relatively new, there is no guidance on CBD’s long-term efficacy.
Here are other considerations:
1. Be wary of extreme promises and CBD claims
Currently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved one CBD product, and that's for the treatment of seizures. The FDA is aware that some companies are marketing products containing CBD in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and that may put the health and safety of consumers at risk, and it is monitoring unproven CBD claims around serious diseases and product contamination.
To feel more confident about your purchase, you can ask the brand for a certificate of analysis (COA), which lets you know if the product contains the amount of CBD advertised.
A COA will also list:
- how much CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids the product has
- potential contaminants, such as heavy metals, pesticides, or microbes
- which lab did the testing; make sure it's a third-party lab
2. Effects will vary, based on your health
As with the 100+ other cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, CBD can have different effects on different people. One study found that it can increase sleep duration for people with clinical conditions, while another published in Frontiers in Pharmacology found that CBD had zero impact on sleep in healthy volunteers.
Dr. Dustin Sulak, an integrative medicine physician based in Maine, has seen mixed results with patients who use CBD. “There’s a portion of people who take it before bed and sleep great, and then others who are not affected,” he says, adding that some research has found that CBD can actually keep individuals awake at night. “Like everything when it comes to cannabis, there’s a wide individual variability.”
3. Sleep issues stemming from anxiety and pain disorders may benefit from CBD
“For many people, their sleep issues may be rooted in anxiety,” says Dr. Chris Winter, sleep specialist and Sleep Advisor to Sleep.com. “It’s not that they can’t sleep, it’s that they’re scared that they cannot. That anxiety loop can make it such that people will take longer to fall asleep, and that’s where I can see CBD coming into play.”
One 2020 study found that individuals who took CBD for treatment for anxiety and depression reported less symptoms and an improvement in their ability to perform daily functions. The three-month study mentioned above also found sustained decrease in anxiety symptoms with use of CBD.
Studies show that pain, especially the anxiety around pain disrupting sleep, may be treated with CBD. One analysis concluded that CBD is effective for pain management, especially when inhaled.
Ways to use CBD
There are many methods for using CBD. Inhalation, sublingual, digestive, transdermal, topical, and intranasal are the delivery methods currently used for CBD products, and the one you choose can directly impact how quickly it enters your bloodstream — and how strongly you feel its effects.
You can use CBD through oral, inhaled, sublingual, transdermal, and topical forms such as:
- oils, sprays and tinctures for under the tongue
- nasal and mouth sprays
- pills and capsules
- juice for vape pens and vapes
- topical oils, lotions, patches, and bath bombs
- beverages, gummies, and other edibles
- transdermal patches
Since the FDA doesn’t regulate CBD, it can be hard to know if the product contains the amount advertised on the packaging. An analysis of CBD products online found that 26% of products has less CBD, while 43% had more. Some products were also found to include THC, which can be dangerous for children if accidentally consumed.
If you choose to purchase a CBD product, look for labels that identify the CBD isolate and indicate whether or not the product contains broad- or full-spectrum CBD. Then check the COA to identify the level of CBD and other chemicals in the product. If a product is labeled full-spectrum CBD, then it will have trace amounts of THC and the other cannabinoids found naturally in the cannabis plant.
Some CBD products are formulated with other ingredients that help with sleep, such as lavender and melatonin.
Risks and side effects of CBD
Although researchers are still exploring CBD’s long-term implications, its documented side effects are mild. When researchers looked at people who took 1,500mg daily, experts reported that the most common issues included tiredness, diarrhea, and changes in appetite/weight.
The Mayo Clinic reports additional symptoms such as dry mouth and drowsiness. The appearance of these symptoms may depend on how much CBD you’re taking and if CBD is interacting with any existing medications you’re already taking. Talk to a doctor before adding CBD to your bedside table.
Still, Sunak says that the risks associated with CBD use are quite low. “Because it’s typically so well tolerated, even into the triple digits in terms of milligrams, that offers room for individuals to experiment with products and see how it makes them feel, especially with sleep,” he says.
What is the bottom line on CBD?
A little fuzzy? We hear you.
If you want to completely avoid CBD, there are plenty of alternative, researched-backed supplements and techniques to try. For anxiety and stress, we love progressive muscle relaxation, essential oils, and journaling before bed. When it comes to pain and sleep, try heat compresses, massages, or switching up your pillows and mattress.
Additional reporting by Emily Hubbell