As soon as I broke eye contact, I knew the chase was on. A gang of women, unleashed from a basketball court in downtown Los Angeles, pursued me down trash-filled alleyways until I ducked into a McDonalds and begged an employee for help. He rushed me into an elevator up to the rooftop, where I looked down and watched the mob angrily disperse.
Then I woke up.
I am not prone to nightmares, and I sleep soundly most nights. But for two straight weeks, vivid dreams like this one shook me awake from a deeper than usual sleep. The only thing I’d done differently was smear my forehead and temples with a roll-on CBD oil, which I received as a gift and tried for its appealing scent of lavender. It was supposed to help with headaches. When I stopped using it, the dreams stopped, too.
Could a topical salve that sells for $30 at Urban Outfitters wield such power over my nights? The internet revealed few answers, but it did provide company. I wasn’t alone in my distress, but nobody seemed to have the answer.
CBD, short for cannabidiol, is the compound derived from cannabis and hemp. Unlike THC, it’s the one that’s not psychoactive and doesn’t cause a high, but it does seem to relieve anxiety and pain, according to a small but growing body of scientific literature and anecdotal evidence.
Because it can be derived from industrial hemp, CBD enjoys a gray legal status in the United States. Marketed as a reducer of stress, inflammation, and pain, it’s added to edibles and topicals. “Apply to temples and back of neck to help with the symptoms of headaches and migraines,” instructed the label on the package. And then the nightmares started.
A 2018 thread in the r/CBD subreddit asked: “Anyone else noticing hugely enhanced dream recall?” The answers were all over the place. One user touted its ability to prevent dreams. Another noted a shift to vivid dreams that “aren’t scary anymore.” Someone else said theirs were “vivid but in a negative way.” Articles on cannabis sites with titles like “Will CBD Give You Weird Dreams?” suggest that the experience is not uncommon.
A representative of CBD for Life, the company that makes the roll-on oil I used, told me: “Our CBD roll-on will not have a large impact on sleep. Typically, you’ll find aid with sleep from taking CBD internally through tinctures, gummies, or other consumables.”
When I asked whether any other users had reported weird dreams from any CBD product, they elaborated:
As far as weird dreams, I would doubt that CBD has any of this impact. CBD helps regulate the circadian rhythm and establish sleep cycles, but has shown in studies to reduce brain activity while asleep, attributing to a peaceful night. As more studies come out, I am very interested to see the updates in research!
Ethan Russo, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, said that any effect of CBD on dreams, if it existed at all, would boil down to its complex effect on sleep.
CBD and Sleep
CBD is often marketed as a sleep aid, but its effect on sleep is not well understood.
Russo, who one Cleveland Clinic doctor told me was the “CBD guru,” told me that “it is clear that pure CBD in low to moderate doses is alerting,” as shown in his 2007 review and a 2004 study by a different group of researchers.
Some Californians, Russo adds, even use pure CBD, sometimes called CBD isolate, to replace caffeine.
Alertness is not what you want from a sleep aid. But that’s not to say that CBD products can’t help you sleep. When they do, it could be the CBD-adjacent compounds in those products, not the CBD, that is helping you nod off.
CBD isolate is a compound that’s further purified from CBD extract, which is what’s often sold in shops and added to foods, says Russo.
Sometimes labeled “full-spectrum CBD,” extracts can contain several other compounds derived from hemp in addition to CBD. Sometimes it has a bit of THC, but not enough to get you high, at no more than 0.3 percent.
Those other compounds can pack a punch. “Other influences can be operative,” Russo tells me. In particular, a compound called myrcene, a type of terpene, may be doing the sleep-inducing work behind the scenes.
“Specifically, most cannabidiol extracts are rich in myrcene, producing the misimpression that CBD is sedating,” Russo says. “That would also make sleep more likely.”
If there was something in the roll-on oil that put me to sleep, it probably wasn’t the CBD. But CBD may still have an important role in the sleep process: removing obstacles in the way of sleep, and perhaps clearing a path for stranger dreams as well.