CBD and Your Sleep-Wake Cycle
Growing up in New England I was no stranger to harsh snowy winters. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I thought the milder climate would make the winters out here pretty easy. What I did not anticipate was the effect the lack of light would have on my overall well-being. As great as it was to not have to bundle up head to toe every time I set foot out the door, I came to discover another challenge - the near constant cloud cover was really difficult to acclimate to both mentally and physically. I was really missing those crisp, cold, blue sky winter days where, although you can see your breath, you can also feel the warmth of the sun on your face (and be reminded that yes, the sun still exists).
I realized I was starting to struggle a bit each year with the thought of going so long without adequate sunlight. Each morning it was a struggle to get myself going despite getting enough hours of sleep. I was also not getting sleepy toward the end of the day when I was trying to wind down. In addition to this, I was noticing my mood suffered. I realized my circadian rhythm was being affected by my environment. The good news AND the bad news: your circadian rhythm is highly influenced by your environment. So yes we can easily throw ourselves off with late nights spent staring at computer screens, but we can also harness that power for good by sending our bodies the right signals at the right times.
The Importance of our Circadian Rhythm
On a basic level, our circadian rhythm is what controls our sleep-wake cycle. Its what makes you feel alert and ready for the day in the morning, and as the sun sets and you start winding down, signals to your body that its time to get some rest. If you've ever had the experience of going camping and feeling like your body starts to fall in line with the rising and setting of the sun, you've experienced the positive influence your environment can have on your circadian rhythm. In general, the closer these habits fall in line with nature, the better off your circadian rhythm is for it. There are of course some exceptions to this, such as night shift work, being the parent to a newborn, etc, but even in these cases there are steps that you can take to help alleviate the disruptions in your natural pattern.
One part that really got me stumped when I started taking steps towards helping my body restore its circadian rhythm, was the fact that there is not a dependable sunny sky in the morning in the winter. In a well functioning sleep-wake cycle you would be exposing yourself to sunlight, ideally early morning light. This sends cues to your brain to start producing cortisol, and starts an internal clock that will then help your pineal gland in your brain release melatonin at the end of the day. But what do you do if you live in a part of the world that gets very little or inconsistent sunshine for a large part of the year? On my quest to bring some balance back to my body, I discovered several strategies that, when I incorporated them into my daily routine, really helped me deal with the winter blues and my energy levels throughout the day.
Circadian Rhythm and CBD - What is the connection?
Our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, regulates many biological processes. It is responsible for our sleep-wake cycle, as well as changes with how we metabolize fuel - glucose, amino acids, fats, etc. Factors such as light, food intake, and sleep all play a part in how our body carries out various biological functions. Our Endocannabinoid System plays an important role in maintaining some of these basic functions, including having an influence on our circadian rhythm. Essentially, we can have an influence on setting our internal clock, through factors like sunlight, nutrition, and influencing our endocannabinoid system via CBD usage.
When it comes to routines, I think a lot of people are put off by the idea of adding in yet another thing to their already busy day. I like to think of these strategies as ideas to try and see what sticks - if it works for you, sweet! It can be fun to try out different ways of supporting your body and see what works best for you.
- Start your day with some sunshine. In the colder, darker months, I accomplish this by setting up a comfy place to sit near a window that gets maximum sunlight (some is better than none!) Bonus points for having some plants in your space to make you feel like you're amongst nature- they're probably gonna want that sunny window anyways! The key for me is to have an LED light therapy lamp that I turn on, which mimics the light exposure you would get from the sun. Look for a lamp that is at least 10,000 lux, which is how the brightness is measured. The sooner you expose yourself to those first rays of “sunlight”, the sooner that internal clock will kick off, sending out a cascade of hormonal signals like cortisol, telling your body its time to be alert.
2. Now that you're alert, get moving! Even if its just a few short walks a day, it will cue your body into realizing its the active portion of your 24 hour cycle. Keeping your blood flowing, and the fresh air can do wonders for you - especially when your day consists of a lot of computer time and problem solving. Quarantine in general has really affected the baseline level of activity so many of us get. I used to save my activity for a certain part of the day - whether it was a run, session at the climbing gym, yoga class, or HIIT workout. That still left me with a vast majority of the day being cooped up inside and minimally active. Recently though, I've found value in getting out of the house for three 10 minute walks, and then whatever workout or fun active thing I do for the day is on top of that. I heard someone say this and it really struck me: “Don't overthink it - just throw on a jacket and walk away from your house for 5 minutes, then walk back and you're done.”
3. Experiment with the effect CBD has on your sleep-cycle. You may fall into one of three camps regarding how CBD might influence your sleep quality and quantity. In one study, researchers looked at two primary causes of sleep disturbances: anxiety and insomnia. Participants in the anxiety group found greater sleep benefits from taking CBD during the day, while participants whos primary complaint was insomnia found greater benefit from taking it at night. If you find that your daily stress levels are not allowing you to wind down at the end of the day, maybe CBD during your waking hours is a place to start. If you are generally good during the day but then find your mind is racing and you’re restless when your head hits the pillow, then taking CBD at night might be of benefit. There is also the aspect of pain - as pain can undoubtedly affect the quality and quantity of sleep, timing your CBD to manage pain can potentially help you get a better nights rest.
4. Minimize your nighttime light exposure. Ok so you sent those daytime light signals to your brain in the morning, but if you dont stop sending those signals, your body has a hard time initiating the release of melatonin. One study shows that even a tiny amount of light exposure to just your skin can influence the release of melatonin. That little green light on your computer battery? The streetlight outside your apartment window? It might sound overkill, but these can all play a part in getting a good night's rest. Light blocking curtains, using candles or soft wattage bulbs, and limiting your use of electronics an hour or two before bed can do wonders for making sure that melatonin gets released.
Bottom line, there is a lot you can actually do about improving your sleep-wake cycle, and sleep quality! I find it fascinating that we can have such an impact on our biology with seemingly simple tweaks to our habits. Try some of these adjustments to your daily routine and see what improves!