Living with a sleep disorder, such as insomnia or restless legs syndrome, can be an exhausting and frustrating experience. These conditions disrupt our natural sleep rhythms, meaning we not only don’t get enough sleep — but the sleep we do get tends to be poor quality too. The effects of bad sleep go beyond just feeling tired. Sleep disorders can cause difficulties concentrating, mood swings, lowered immune function, and a higher risk of illnesses.
Insomnia treatment can be challenging too due to the many reasons why sleep problems happen. Stress, poor sleep hygiene habits, and medical and psychological conditions can all cause sleep issues. The duration and severity of your sleep disorders also play a role in how to manage them, with chronic cases often requiring more comprehensive or holistic treatment options.
Medicinal cannabis has shown promise as a potential natural and lower-risk option for some people with insomnia. The natural compounds found in cannabis plants, cannabinoids THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) plus terpenes, interact with the body's endocannabinoid system to help regulate sleep and other bodily functions.
Learn more about how medical cannabis may help with sleep disorders in some patients and discover options for accessing medicinal cannabis in Australia.
Understanding Sleep Disorders
Insomnia and other sleep disorders are conditions that disrupt normal sleep patterns, making it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or achieve good quality sleep. Many factors, including stress, medical conditions, lifestyle habits, or even genetic factors can cause sleep disorders.
Some common sleep disorders include insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy.
People with insomnia face ongoing challenges in falling asleep or maintaining sleep, and are often accompanied by stress or anxiety.
Restless legs syndrome also causes disrupted sleep, however sleep difficulties are caused by uncomfortable leg sensations and uncontrollable urges to move the legs.
Instead of trouble sleeping at night, narcolepsy causes sudden, uncontrollable episodes of daytime sleepiness. Narcolepsy can also cause sudden muscle weakness or paralysis triggered by emotions, like laughter or surprise. Additionally, narcoleptics can experience vivid hallucinations (also known as hypnopompic hallucinations) upon falling.
Effective management and treatment of sleep disorders requires accurate diagnosis and personalised treatment plans. Want to know more about sleep disorders? Talk to a doctor to receive a comprehensive assessment and achieve better sleep.
Why is Poor Sleep Such a Problem?
With how busy our daily lives can be, it’s easy to underestimate how important sleep is for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
During sleep, our bodies undergo essential processes that help repair tissue, strengthen our immune system, and regulate hormones. Additionally, sleep is vital for memory consolidation, learning, and problem-solving, allowing us to process and make sense of the information we encounter throughout the day.
Getting enough sleep also stabilises mood and emotional resilience. Ongoing sleep deprivation (like what you would experience with chronic insomnia) has been associated with heightened stress levels and an increased susceptibility to mental health disorders.
Poor sleep can even affect our physical health and increase our risk of chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Polln Doctor, Dr Melissa Catanzarite, MBBS believes that sleep is the single most significant component of our self care. “Sleep is the real miracle drug; it promotes healing, emotional stability and even weight loss. Without sleep we struggle to have meaningful interactions with those we love, our creativity is dampened or ceases altogether and we are at more risk for significant health disorders.
A person can take all of the medications, supplements and yoga classes in the world and their health will not improve until they prioritise sleep.”
Challenges of Traditional Sleep Disorder Treatments
Conventional treatments for sleep disorders that rely on pharmaceutical interventions (sometimes called “sleeping pills”) or behavioural therapies can be challenging for patients due to their possible side effects, dependency concerns, and varying levels of effectiveness.
While behavioural therapies, like cognitive behavioural therapy, can be effective drug-free insomnia treatment options, they require commitment and patience as they often involve making long-term changes to sleep habits and routines.
Prescription sleep aids, like benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, on the other hand, help insomnia by boosting the calming effects of various brain chemicals. However, these medications are typically recommended for short-term use.
Prolonged or excessive use of prescription sleep aids can lead to tolerance, where the effectiveness of the drug diminishes over time, or drug dependence. Additionally, when individuals stop using these medications after extended use, they may experience rebound insomnia, where their sleep problems worsen again.
Benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepine hypnotics can also lead to issues such as daytime drowsiness, cognitive impairment, and an increased likelihood of accidents or falls, particularly among older adults.
There is a significant need for natural sleep aids. Some alternatives include medical cannabis, relaxation exercises, and improved sleeping habits, such as taking daily exercises, reducing caffeine and alcohol intake, and making changes to your sleeping environment to promote better sleep hygiene.
Medicinal Cannabis and Insomnia, Restless Leg Syndrome, and Narcolepsy
Research has demonstrated the efficacy of medical cannabis in treating certain sleep disorders, including insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy in some patients. Studies have shown that the natural compounds found in cannabis, such as CBD and THC, can influence our sleep patterns to potentially provide us with a better night’s sleep.
CBD, or CBD oil, for instance, may act as a natural sleep medicine due to it’s calming properties and may help people with anxiety-related insomnia or restless leg syndrome.
Medicinal cannabis has been shown to help manage the following sleep disorders:
- Insomnia: Insomnia is a common sleep disorder characterised by difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep.While treating insomnia can be complicated in some cases, research suggests that medical cannabis can help people with insomnia fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
In one study, 71% of patients using cannabis products for sleep reported improved sleep, with 39% reducing and/or discontinuing their prescription sleep medication.
- Restless legs syndrome (RLS): Medical cannabis may help to reduce the symptoms of RLS, such as the urge to move the legs and relieve associated discomfort or pain.
A small 2017 study showed that medical cannabis was able to reduce symptoms of RLS. All participants noted an improvement in their sleep after treatment was completed. What’s more, the patients described medicinal cannabis products as the most effective sleep aid and the best-tolerated treatment.
- Narcolepsy: Narcolepsy is characterised by sudden episodes of daytime sleepiness and can lead to sudden loss of muscle control (cataplexy), hallucinations, and sleep paralysis.
Medical cannabis may help to reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy, such as excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
How Medical Cannabis May Support as a Natural Sleep Aid
Medical cannabis may help treat sleep disorders due to its interaction with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS plays an important role in regulating various bodily functions, including sleep.
The ECS has been found to influence sleep-wake cycles, sleep duration, and sleep quality through its modulation of neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain. Cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, may influence the quality and duration of sleep in some patients by:
- Reducing Anxiety: CBD as a sleep aid may provide insomnia relief for some patients. CBD has anti-anxiety (anxiolytic) properties that may help alleviate anxiety and stress, common contributors to sleep disorders like insomnia.
- Promoting Relaxation: Both THC and CBD have muscle relaxant and sedative properties, potentially aiding in relaxation and promoting sleep onset.
- Regulating REM Sleep: THC has been shown to suppress REM sleep, which could be beneficial for those with conditions like nightmares or REM sleep behaviour disorder. Interestingly, reduced REM sleep has been linked to early onset dementia and cognitive decline; however, CBD and THC together may allow for more REM, potentially protecting brain health for some people.
- Pain Relief: Medical cannabis may alleviate pain in some patients, which is often a contributing factor to sleep disorders. By reducing pain, it may facilitate better sleep.
Therapeutic Effects of Medical Cannabis for Sleep
When considering medical cannabis for sleep, it's essential to consult a doctor before starting a treatment course. Your practitioner can help you assess the potential risks and benefits, and decide if medical cannabis aligns with your sleep disorder and overall health needs.
Medical cannabis offers several therapeutic effects that may set it apart from other sleep medications:
- Effective: Medical cannabis has been shown to improve sleep quality, reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and increase the duration of deep, restorative sleep, offering a comprehensive approach to addressing sleep disorders for some patients.
- Natural: Unlike many traditional sleep medications, medical cannabis is derived from the cannabis plant, making it a natural alternative that may appeal to those seeking a plant-based remedy without the side effects associated with some synthetic drugs.
- Relaxing: The compounds in medical cannabis, particularly CBD, have shown potential for inducing relaxation and reducing anxiety in some patients. By promoting a sense of calm, medical cannabis can contribute to more tranquil sleep for those dealing with stress-related sleep disturbances.
- Less Side Effects: Compared to some pharmaceutical interventions, medical cannabis may have fewer side effects for some patients, particularly when used responsibly and under medical supervision. This can be appealing for those concerned about adverse reactions and dependency associated with traditional sleep medications.
Risks of Medical Cannabis for Sleep
When deciding on any kind of medication, it's important to acknowledge any possible risks alongside potential benefits.
Some risks of medicinal cannabis for sleep include potential side effects such as dizziness, dry mouth, and cognitive impairment, as well as the risk of developing tolerance, and dependence. Additionally, the psychoactive nature of THC, may not be suitable for people with mood disorders, like bipolar or schizophrenia.
A comprehensive discussion with a caring medical professional can help you navigate these risks and benefits to help you make an informed decision about whether medical cannabis is a safe and effective option for you.
The Wrap Up
Sleep disorders can have a profound impact on both our physical and mental well-being, disrupting our natural sleep patterns and significantly influencing our overall health and quality of life. Traditional treatments, though effective for some, can come with some challenging side effects like dependence or rebound insomnia, and might not but suitable for everything.
Medical cannabis provides a safer, natural, sleep aid option. By interacting with the endocannabinoid system, it can help improve sleep, reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and even regulate REM sleep. Even though medicinal cannabis has fewer side effects than other sleep medications, it’s still important to consult with a healthcare professional to weigh the risks and benefits and decide if natural therapies are right for you.
Medicinal Cannabis and Sleep FAQ
What is the most effective natural sleep aid?
One natural sleep aid is medicinal cannabis. While the effectiveness and safety of medicinal cannabis as a sleep aid can vary from person to person, there is a growing body of research suggesting medical cannabis may improve sleep quality, reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and increase the duration of deep and restorative sleep.
Medicinal cannabis contains compounds called cannabinoids, such as CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which interact with the body's endocannabinoid system. This system plays a role in regulating various physiological processes, including sleep. CBD, in particular, has been studied for its potential to promote relaxation and alleviate anxiety in some patients, both of which can contribute to better sleep.
Several studies have indicated that CBD may help some individuals with insomnia or other sleep disorders. It's believed to have a calming effect on the mind, helping to ease racing thoughts and create a more conducive environment for falling asleep. Additionally, some individuals have reported experiencing longer periods of deep sleep and improved sleep continuity when using CBD as a sleep aid.
It's worth noting that other natural sleep aids, such as meditation, hypnotherapy, and melatonin, are also recognised for their potential in promoting restful sleep. Different individuals may find varying degrees of effectiveness with these options, and it's advisable to explore what works best for your individual needs and preferences.
Can you become dependent on sleep aids?
Yes, it is possible to become dependent on sleep aids, including medicinal cannabis. Both over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids, as well as natural remedies like medicinal cannabis, can lead to physical and psychological dependence if used improperly or for an extended period.
- Prescription Sleep Aids: Prescription medications like benzodiazepines and certain non-benzodiazepine drugs can effectively treat sleep disorders, but they carry the risk of dependence. Tolerance can develop over time, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effect. This can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the medication.
- Over-the-Counter and Natural Sleep Aids: Even over-the-counter sleep aids, including herbal supplements, and natural options like medicinal cannabis can also lead to dependence. Using these aids regularly can create a psychological reliance on them to induce sleep.
- Medicinal Cannabis: While medicinal cannabis has shown potential for improving sleep, prolonged and indiscriminate use can also lead to dependence. Regular use might lead to the body adapting to its effects, potentially requiring higher doses to achieve the desired sleep benefits. Learn more.
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The information on this website is provided for educational and informational purposes only and not intended for use as medical advice. Polln is not promoting the use of medicinal cannabis. Medicinal cannabis in Australia is scheduled medication and regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Details about medicinal cannabis as a scheduled drug can be found on their website. If you would like to explore medicinal cannabis for your chronic condition, please consult with a doctor.
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