The Green Scene

How CBD Became the Hottest Sleep Partner

Why this cannabinoid helps people have more restful sleep.

February 18, 2022
Photo by Ty Mecham

In The Green Scene, there's no such thing as a silly question about cannabis. What's the difference between THC and CBD? How the heck do I make edibles at home? What home design advice can dispensaries teach me? Kick back—we have the answers.

When Ashlae W.’s husband, Thomas Cassidy, returned from a 2003 tour in Iraq, he developed myriad sleep disorders. “He would have night terrors, just horrible insomnia that I watched take a toll on him every single day,” Ashlae told me. Cassidy tried CBD for the first time in 2017, when Ashlae was just starting to explore making cannabis-based tinctures for a new business venture. “He slept through the night, it changed his life almost instantly.”

Though this was not the only reason the couple launched their company, Supergood Hemp, the personal connection to just how much CBD could aid with sleep—and, it turned out, numerous other ailments—was enough for them to know the concept was a pretty safe bet.

CBD, short for cannabidiol, is one of over 400 chemical entities and 60 cannabinoid compounds found in the cannabis plant. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main active compound in the cannabis plant, CBD is not psychoactive (meaning it won’t get you high when used by itself). Though readily available throughout the U.S., CBD’s actual legal status was unstable until 2018, when the Farm Bill’s legalization of hemp de facto legalized CBD as well. The compound is typically sold as an edible oil or capsule, but can be found in many forms, from vape pens to sodas to body lotions, many of which are geared toward relaxation.

Though there aren’t large quantities of studies that firmly prove CBD improves any medical complication, it is used to manage symptoms and disorders like muscle pain, skin irritation, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, and many, many others—even serious conditions, like epilepsy and schizophrenia. The length of the list could make anyone skeptical. But CBD doesn’t appear to be a magical cure-all so much as a regulator—perhaps, for any kind of imbalance.

The endocannabinoid system (ECS), a neuromodulatory system, works with the central nervous system to regulate numerous bodily functions. The ECS, which was discovered during just the past few decades, works via cannabinoid receptors that naturally exist in the brain. These receptors "outnumber many of the other receptor types on the brain,” writes Peter Grinspoon, MD, in Harvard Health Publishing. “This is how they regulate things: by immediate feedback, turning up or down the activity of whichever system needs to be adjusted, whether that is hunger, temperature, or alertness.” Essentially, ingesting a CBD product supplements the ECS with additional cannabinoids, and the system can more easily achieve homeostasis.

“The endocannabinoid system is already in our body and working, regardless if we are taking a supplement or not,” said Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN. Weiss, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, also serves as a scientific advisor for Beam, a supplement brand focusing on CBD products organized under five categories: “sleep,” “calm,” “energy,” “recovery,” and “hydration.”

As the signs point to CBD as a regulating supplement, it’s up to the consumer to explore which symptoms they may want to address with the cannabinoid. Though the bulk of published research has focused on treating chronic pain as a result of diagnosed illness, a fringe result has shown that CBD can work as a sleep aid, particularly with regard to insomnia. In fact, a 2013 study found preliminary results of better sleep in pain patients treated with cannabinoids.

“The science that we have right now shows us that CBD does have an impact in improving sleep quality,” added Weiss. “It reduces feelings of anxiety or stress, which also helps with sleep.”

Of course, there are plenty of pharmaceutical sleep aids available over-the-counter (like Zzzquil and Advil PM) and via prescription (like Ambien or Lunesta) for those who have other symptoms that prevent them from resting, or are simply struggling with insomnia, but Weiss is wary. “There is a difference in the quality of sleep that they produce. We have different sleep cycles that we need to go through, so we can have a nice restorable sleep,” she explained, noting that when someone takes the aforementioned style of drug, “You're going to be passed out, not having that good quality of sleep.”

This indeed proved to be the case for Becky Waddell. She’d been a stomach-sleeper for years, but following back surgery in 2020 was told she couldn’t continue to sleep in her usual position, which led to a lot of unrest. She’d been prescribed Ambien in the past, and had tried valerian root, but found that both remedies made her groggy if she didn’t have at least eight hours to sleep. So she started taking CBD. “I feel like I have more control experimenting with CBD,” she said. Waddell tried a handful of oil-based CBD tinctures but found she prefers the brand Rose’s CBD flower rosin capsules, which integrate easily into her evening routine of taking other medications.

Cara Willing had a similar experience. During law school she struggled with falling asleep and started taking over-the-counter sleep aids: “It’s what was accessible. But I would wake up and it’d take a whole French press to make me human again.” When she started experimenting with taking CBD oil tinctures, she no longer woke up with brain fog.

There is some preliminary research that points to CBN as a more effective sedative or sleep aid than CBD, but, like THC, it’s a more regulated cannabinoid, and is much less accessible as an isolated product. However, a number of CBD products are full- or broad-spectrum, meaning they contain the benefits of other cannabinoids (the former can contain up to 0.3% THC, but still will not get you high), including CBN. Further, in a phenomenon that researchers have dubbed the "entourage effect," it appears that more potent—yet still not psychoactive—full-spectrum CBD supplements appear to have more effective health benefits than CBD isolate.

As is the case with many supplements, there are no guarantees of CBD’s effectiveness for any one problem with every individual. “It’s going to target what your body needs,” Ashlae explained, reinforcing the importance of regulating the endocannabinoid system, as opposed to specifically targeting a symptom. (She does, however, recommend oral products as opposed to topical for those who are looking for help with sleep.) “I’ve never struggled with a sleep issue…if I take CBD at night, I’m up all night. For me, it gives me a lift; it’s like a cup of coffee but without the jitters.”

Interestingly, just about every individual I spoke with who takes CBD for sleep also uses THC-based products. Though for some their use is purely recreational, others made a transition from CBD to THC for financial reasons. Willing noted that a brand of THC gummies she likes “does just as good a job, if not better, than CBD. And I’m only paying like $20 for a pack that lasts a month as opposed to $70 for a small jar of [CBD] oil.”

Ashlae and Cassidy also work in the THC space, but prefer to keep lines drawn pretty firmly between intoxicating modes of consuming cannabis and CBD. Weiss also thinks of the two cannabinoids as quite separate, particularly for those who are only looking for a sleep aid or anxiety relief.

As the more highly regulated cannabinoid-based products inevitably become increasingly legalized and destigmatized, however, the CBD industry will likely face changes. Whether these products will become less expensive—or have a market at all—remains an open question.

“I honestly feel like it might even get a little bit more expensive. The merchandising of wellness is still very much taxed,” said Shanika Hillocks, a consultant on brand strategy and marketing. That increased bottom line—in all areas of the cannabis market—can be the result of the trend of (typically, white-owned) brands using expensive packaging and advertising to elevate products that aren’t new to the market, or have historically been used by different demographics.

Hillocks also noted that a number of cannabis companies have also started donating a portion of their profits to efforts advocating for the freedom of people (the majority of whom are Black) incarcerated for a substance that is no longer illegal. This also requires a markup. “Whether it is to appropriate, or to actually have some sort of kind of advocacy and activism around the production, I believe costs won't necessarily go down.”

At this point, considering that such a large number of people avoid THC as they don’t want to get high, are nervous about the stigma around usage, or live in areas where the cannabinoid is still illegal, CBD remains a milder, more accessible option to the largest group. “I think it definitely provides an opportunity for those who might have fear or stigma around THC in particular,” said Hillocks. “To me, I look at all of these things as medicine.”

Similarly, Waddell noted that while her grandfather refused a medical cannabis prescription, he was comfortable with CBD—though she hopes that as more research is done in the realm of full-spectrum cannabinoid products, more people feel safe reaping their benefits. “This is changing, but I think a lot of people don’t know that it’s literally the same plant. I think it’s important to understand how the components can work together.”

Have you tried CBD as a sleep aid? Let us know in the comments!

If you're considering enjoying the products and/or recipes in this content, please consult and follow the legal restrictions for controlled substances in your state. Because there are so many variables with cannabis products, go slowly. You may want to start with half a serving and determine your tolerance and ideal dose from there. And always wait a couple hours to feel the effects.

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.

1 Comment

Mcatapang1818 August 10, 2022
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