Over the last year, sleep became a bit of a national obsession, with the trend showing no signs of slowing down in 2019. Time and time again, experts emphasize the importance of routinely getting a good night’s rest, and considering that one third of Americans aren’t getting enough regular sleep, according to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the trend doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. But for many people, the quest for a good night’s sleep involves some kind of sleep aid, whether that’s good sleep hygiene, exercise, melatonin, or cannabidiol — aka, CBD. If you’re interested in potentially trying out a new sleep aid, it’s worth understanding how melatonin and CBD differ when it comes to helping you sleep.
One of the main reasons people associate CBD — a nonpsychoactive cannabis compound found in tinctures or pills — with better sleep is because it’s known for its anti-inflammatory properties, Dr. Michael Breus, clinical psychologist and sleep doctor, tells Bustle. “We also know it helps with lower inflammation. We know that lower inflammation helps with sleep.” The science conclusively linking CBD with better sleep, Dr. Breus says, is only about 85 percent of the way there, however. A 2017 literature review on the subject suggests that CBD “may have therapeutic potential for the treatment of insomnia,” but the results so far are mixed. The review also notes that CBD may be useful for treating excessive daytime sleepiness and REM sleep behavior disorder (a condition where people “act” out their dreams, physically moving their limbs in their sleep or engaging in activities like sleep talking).
Another 2013 study found that administering small doses of CBD in rats appeared to increase the animals’ total sleeping time, but it also increased the time it takes to fully fall asleep when administered during the light portion of the day (versus when they were administered CBD during the dark period of the day). “These studies mainly point to CBD’s ability to interact with … serotonin receptors and GABA receptors in the brain,” Gretchen Lidicker, author of CBD Oil: Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health and Wellness, told HuffPost.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter than plays an important role in regulating mood and anxiety, while GABA is a “primary inhibitory neurotransmitter” that helps reduce excess activity in the nervous system. While anecdotal evidence suggests CBD could help some insomniacs sleep if their lack of sleep is due to underlying anxiety, the substance’s results are highly individualized depending on the cause of your sleep troubles. In some cases, small doses of CBD could in fact stimulate alertness, a 2014 study found.
All things being equal, more research into CBD’s effects on sleep needs to be done before we understand exactly how it helps sleep (if at all).
Unlike CBD, melatonin is a hormone that’s produced by the brain’s pineal gland that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. “Melatonin doesn’t make you fall asleep, but melatonin tells your body it’s bedtime,” Dr. Breus previously told Bustle. “Those turn out to be two completely different processes in the brain. Both have to be in sync in order for you to be able to fall asleep.”
Melatonin supplements basically set the gears in motion for your body to be able to fall asleep, which is why they’re helpful to take if you’re experiencing jet lag or another situation where your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle is disrupted. But if you’re just experiencing a random sleepless night, Dr. Breus says it might not be the most helpful thing in your medicine cabinet. “A lot of people won’t even take a sleep aid in any form, whether it’s a supplement or a pill, until they’re in the midst of insomnia at 2:00 a.m.,” he says. Melatonin in this case is doubly unhelpful because it takes about 90 minutes to send the signal to your brain to start getting sleepy, and because it has a half-life of about six hours — meaning if you get up at 8:30 the next morning, it will still be in your system, causing a hangover-ish feeling.
“You can try a supplement on a short-term basis if you’re experiencing insomnia, want to overcome jet lag, or are a night owl who needs to get to bed earlier and wake up earlier, such as for work or school,” said sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M., in an article for Johns Hopkins Medicine. But according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, study results evaluating melatonin’s effects on insomnia in adults are mixed at best, though some research suggests it might slightly decrease the time it takes someone to fall asleep.
And the supplement doesn’t come without risks. Some research indicates that the appropriate dosage of melatonin to be effective as a sleep aid is 0.3- 1.0 mg, whereas many supplements come in doses several times that amount. Additionally, according to SELF, since melatonin pills are considered a dietary supplement, they don’t get heavy regulation by the FDA, meaning the supplements you’re buying may contain different amounts of melatonin than what they’re advertising on the bottle.
It’s important to note that while sleep aids may be helpful in the short-term, they are not stand-ins for proper treatment of insomnia. The National Sleep Foundation recommends people to turn to sleep aids only if insomnia continues despite other behavioral changes and non-medical treatments you’ve already attempted. If you’re dealing with persistent sleep difficulties, you should consult your doctor first to help identify potential causes and discuss treatments.