By: Amy R.
For something so natural and basic for health, sleeping can be remarkably difficult.
A whole lot of Americans have trouble sleeping at least some of the time. For many, it’s just a transitory phase, but for others, it’s a lifelong struggle. And so there is an enormous industry devoted to helping people get some shuteye.
That industry can be tricky to navigate because medicine has produced a long line of sleep aids that turned out to be dangerous in one way or another.
It’s important for every person with insomnia to learn about the causes and the science of sleep disorders and know what their options are.
The Roots Of Insomnia
While insomnia has been described since ancient times, a lot of researchers say that modern life is making it more common than it once was.
For a lot of us, the problem started in early childhood.
Like many little kids, I was scared of the dark and imagined all sorts of monsters that might be lurking in the shadows or making those mysterious creaks coming from beneath the floor. If it got bad enough, I would end up in my parents’ bedroom, sleeping on the floor.
This reaction isn’t surprising, really, given that leaving children alone in dark rooms to sleep is a fairly new practice in world history – and still is uncommon in some parts of the world.
Children are also more likely to suffer from nightmares and sleep terrors. Although these usually fade as we get older, that early experience can still establish the night as a very anxious time.
Even after we grow up, there’s still plenty going on to keep us awake. For one thing, the modern world is full of noise and distractions.
My first experience of living outside of my parents’ house was in a college dorm, which as anyone who’s been there knows, is not exactly a respite of peace and quiet.
My dorm was hardly a party house, but there were still students who would have long phone conversations in the middle of the night.
And after college, the Internet became a thing and set everyone on the course toward staring at glowing screens day and night. Electricity had already been messing with people’s circadian rhythms by keeping the night unnaturally bright, and television had provided a more stimulating way to unwind than reading by candlelight.
Another, perhaps underappreciated, factor in adult insomnia is temperature. Like a lot of people, I tend to be cold when I’m sleepy, so it’s tempting to leave the heat on when going to bed. But temperature is an important factor in, which tells your body when to sleep and when to wake up.
Sleeping Pills: The Ups and Downs
But of course, there are plenty of people who still sleep like logs despite all of this, which can also make insomniacs feel like there’s something wrong with us. And so anxiety about insomnia can itself exacerbate insomnia, as you can’t get to sleep because you’re worried about not getting to sleep, or even angry about it.
It’s in these circumstances, trying to blot out your brain with a pill can be very appealing. I started that in my noisy college dorm with over-the-counter stuff like Sominex.
Virtually all of those drugstore sleep aids have, which is Benadryl when sold as an antihistamine. It’s a fairly effective sedative, though it does lose its oomph if you eat something close to the time that you take it.
But over time, your body does adapt to it. I found myself needing more for it to work, and if I didn’t have it for whatever reason, my “rebound” insomnia would be worse. The same went for its antihistamine effect, actually – if I went off of it, my nose exploded.
But in 2004, I got interested in a new prescription drug called Lunesta. When it came out, it became touted as a new kind of sleeping pill that was safe to take for longer periods than previous sedatives.
I went on it and took it for almost 10 years until my doctor abruptly pulled the plug. It turns out it wasn’t safe for long-term use after all.
It was only later that I learned more of Lunesta’s backstory. It was one of a group of drugs designed to be successors to benzodiazepines, which had been the new wonder drugs when they came out in the 1950s and ‘60s under names like Valium, Librium, and Xanax.
Those drugs work by depressing the central nervous system, which is effective for getting you to sleep but also brings your body to a state closer to death. The potential for a lethal overdose is high, as is the potential for addiction.
By the time I was consulting doctors about my sleep problems, they had become more cautious about prescribing benzodiazepines, at least in the West.
A few years ago I went on a trip to East Africa and was suffering hellacious jet-lag, only to learn that the hotel where we were staying had a doctor on staff. Dr. Feelgood would shell out Valium and other hardcore medicines without worrying about piddling things like prescriptions.
I will say, it worked like a charm. The flight back marked the first and so far only time that I’ve been able to sleep on a plane. But obviously, it’s not for longer-term use.
The next generation of sleep drugs, which included Lunesta, aimed to have a similar effect on the brain as benzodiazepines, but without the risks. However, subsequent research suggested that they really weren’t an improvement after all.
Another issue that’s continuously dogged these drugs is the quality of sleep that they give you. Sleep is actually way more complicated than just lying there unconscious.
Throughout the night, you cycle several times through four different stages of sleep, the deepest being REM or dreaming sleep. If something disrupts this, you might sleep for a normal amount of time or even longer, but still not feel totally rested.
Sedatives that depress your central nervous system can also suppress the normal cycles of sleep. This reaction is true not only of benzodiazepines but alcohol and many recreational drugs. If you’ve ever fallen asleep after drinking a fair amount, you might have found yourself waking up early from a dreamless slumber – and that’s why.
The Benefits Of CBD
One of the difficult things about insomnia is that most of the time, it’s tangled up with other aspects of your life and your health. As I noted earlier, external conditions can have a big impact on your sleep – lighting, noise, activities, and so on.
And so can your inner conditions. Mental-health problems like anxiety, depression, and addiction can disturb your sleep, of course.
But it’s also clear that some people are just more high-strung than others – probably because of differences in their nervous systems. A person who can doze off in the middle of a horror movie, for instance, is definitely wired differently than I am.
That’s what interested me about cannabidiol, or CBD. If you’re like me, your awareness of CBD probably went from zero to “it’s everywhere” over the last year. But in case you’re still hazy on what it is, CBD is an extract of the cannabis plant that is very different from the better-known THC.
CBD doesn’t have the high-inducing effects of THC. Extracted from hemp plants with less than 0.3% THC, CBD is quickly becoming a powerful, natural sleep alternative. Its main feature is that it’s calming and stabilizing. It helps to regulate your body’s endocannabinoid system, which in turn helps control mood, appetite, inflammation, and cognitive functions.
Various studies have indicated that CBD can help with both anxiety and sleep, while still letting people maintain their energy and mental sharpness during the daytime. But most interestingly for our purposes, it seems to help people relax without disrupting their sleep cycles.
One study found that subjects maintained normal sleep-wake cycles even after taking a whopping 600mg of CBD – more than you’ll find in many whole bottles of CBD oil. Some users will opt for CBD vape oil as a convenient way to ease into relaxation right before bed.
Because its effects are subtle, CBD presents a natural alternative to the harsh side effects of other sleep aids. It helps to restore and protect nerve cells.
As far as dosage goes, CBD offers a unique opportunity for users to experience their own relief.
Usually, the best advice is to start low and work your way up. You can start with a lower dose and see how it affects you, then adjust accordingly. Depending on body composition and symptom severity, CBD dosage will differ for each person.
If you’re trying to get off other anxiety and insomnia medications, CBD presents a natural opportunity for better sleep.
The Way Of Tranquility
Ultimately, I’ve found that it’s best to take a more holistic approach to sleep, rather than looking for one magic key.
When I was younger, like all kids, I was trying to cope with conditions that became thrust upon me. But now that I’m grown up, I can take more control of the circumstances in which I live and sleep.
That means creating a greater sense of calm in all of my surroundings.
Holding a stressful job in a major city was eventually not worth a higher salary. Neither was doing the sort of things that, as a younger adult, I enjoyed doing just because I could, like staying up late on weekends or drinking too much.
If you want peace of mind, it has to be a priority in your life. But it can be a very rewarding one.
Author – Amy R.
Born in New York and raised in northern California, Amy joined cbdMD after spending 17 years as a business reporter in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling, visiting museums, watching movies, and fantasizing that she’ll one day finish her novel. She uses CBD Vape Oil from cbdMD to counteract her insomnia.