Natural sleep aids are in high demand in 2020. Even before Covid-19 upended our lives, the Washington Post described our collective chronic lack of sleep as “a simmering public-health crisis associated with a suite of maladies.” But between the coronavirus pandemic and a massive economic downturn, prescriptions for sleep medication in the United States increased 15 percent between mid-February and mid-March. Growing awareness, however, of the risks of drug dependency and the unwanted side effects of some pharmaceuticals have many people seeking out natural sleep remedies that may be safer for long-term use.
What is CBD?
CBD (short for “cannabidiol”) is a compound found in the hemp plant. Unlike THC, its more famous and notorious cousin, CBD is non-intoxicating and does not get you high—but research indicates it can have significant effects on the human body and brain, including our sleep cycles.
The strongest scientific evidence for CBD’s potential effect on the human brain is its effectiveness in treating certain forms of epilepsy. In numerous studies, CBD has been able to reduce patients’ seizures, and sometimes eliminating them altogether. CBD’s value in helping with neuropsychiatric disorders like epilepsy indicates it may have a calming effect on the central nervous system—which brings us to sleep, insomnia, and anxiety.
The Links Between CBD, Sleep and Anxiety
CBD is often cited as a natural sleep aid. Because cannabis and (until recently) hemp has been federally illegal, clinical research on the health benefits of these plants has been very restricted—but there is evidence that CBD can help sleep problems by reducing anxiety.
The causes of insomnia are numerous, but for most of us, the primary source in 2020 has been stress and anxiety. According to the Sleep Foundation, anxiety is frequently connected to sleeplessness. Excess worry and racing thoughts can get louder in our brains during the quiet hours of the evening when we have fewer distractions, making it harder to fall asleep—and sleep deprivation can actually worsen anxiety, triggering a vicious circle of stress and restless nights. Not being able to fall asleep is incredibly stressful!
In one 2019 study, 72 adults who reported anxiety or poor sleep were given daily doses of CBD. Anxiety scores decreased within the first month for nearly 80 percent of the subjects, and remained decreased during the duration of the study. A 2015 study concluded that “evidence from human studies strongly supports the potential for CBD as a treatment for anxiety disorders.”
Why Plants > Pills When it Comes to Sleep
Most of us at some point have taken a Benadryl or a Tylenol PM to help us get some shuteye—but most physicians caution against taking over-the-counter medication to sleep every night. Studies have linked the regular, long-term use of OTC sleep medicines to some serious side effects, including potentially increased risk of dementia. Prescription drugs for sleep can be risky as well, as users may become dependent (or, in the case of medications like Ambien, experience super strange side effects like sleep-walking, sleep-eating or even sleep driving).
CBD, on the other hand, is not habit-forming, and rarely has side effects for those who consume it. The World Health Organization has stated that “CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…. To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
Along with yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises, natural sleep aids like CBD are growing in popularity for good reason: They work. While the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying disruption will be with us for the near future, gentle, natural sleep remedies that can help us cope with unprecedented stress and anxiety are available. Sleep is key to health, and finding healthy ways to encourage our brains to get to sleep are more needed than ever.