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.
The seemingly sleep-enhancing effects of CBD products, say some researchers, may be due to the compound’s effect on inflammation, pain, and anxiety — factors that can stand in the way between a tired person and a good night’s rest.
Scott Shannon, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado-Children’s Hospital, says that in his research he has encountered patients who took CBD and reported better sleep.
"With people being less anxious, they were less worried about their sleep."
“It’s our thinking that with people being less anxious, they were less worried about their sleep,” says Shannon. “It’s actually one of the big issues with people that have sleep problems, as they worry about not sleeping and then they create a problem around that.”
“I do not recommend pure CBD as a sleep aid, but extracts may reduce symptoms that interfere with sleep,” Russo tells me.
University of New Mexico psychologist Jacob Vigil, Ph.D., who studies health applications for medical marijuana, has also seen CBD drive down the intensity levels of insomnia. “It seems to relax people and help them go to sleep,” he says, pointing out the role of its anti-anxiety effects as well as its “gravitational effect” on the muscles.
CBD did seem to induce a heaviness in my body not unlike the embrace of a gravity blanket. Whether real or placebo, it felt as though the weight of it filled up my empty spaces, stopping up the openings where discomfort and anxiety thrive. Maybe that’s why I slept so solidly. But why was waking so stressful?
CBD and Dreams
Dreaming can occur at any stage of sleep, but it mostly happens during REM, when our eyes flick around under their lids and our brains reach their most active state. In REM, the body freezes up by going into “muscle atonia,” a form of temporary paralysis thought to prevent the body from acting out vivid dreams. Bad ones are called nightmares, which, according to the US National Library of Medicine, can be caused by a confounding variety of stimuli, like taking new drugs, stopping old drugs, drinking too much alcohol, suddenly quitting drinking, eating too much before bed, and over-the-counter sleep aids and medicines.
To me, CBD was a new drug as well as an OTC sleep aid, so it made sense that it might trigger vivid nightmares. But Dr. Moran Cerf, an expert on the biology of dreams and a professor of neuroscience and business at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, cautioned me not to put too much stock in the narratives they remember from their dreams, no matter how genuine they seemed.
“We don’t really know if our stories are real,” he says.
When we wake up, we actually forget or “erase” our dreams, says Cerf. But we very quickly “complete” the story with a narrative that rapidly writes itself as we try to remember what happened. That’s why the richness and color with which we recall the dream — the “vividness” of it — isn’t a reliable account of the dream itself.
The length of the story we tell upon waking is often proportional to the length of the dream, and the general emotion of the dream tends to bleed into our narrative, Cerf says. He knows this because he’s working on a way to record the content of dreams as they’re actually happening.
In other words, my recollection of the girl gang, McDonald’s, and rooftop salvation were not to be trusted in the light of day, but the nightmarish feeling straddled both sleep and waking. CBD, if it was doing anything at all, was somehow reducing pain and anxiety but also inducing it.
Similarly perplexing observations can be found in the scant scientific literature regarding CBD and dreams.
Four case studies described in a 2014 article in Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics showed that daily doses of CBD over six weeks helped reduce the vivid dreams associated with REM sleep behavior disorder in Parkinson’s patients. The patients, who received either 75 milligrams or 300 milligrams per day, all experienced fewer vivid dreams after the treatment.
Meanwhile, a 2011 review of the literature on Sativex, a CBD-based epilepsy drug, noted one instance in which some long-term users experienced “vivid dreams” when they stopped taking the drug.
In April, a Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine study that Shannon was involved with showed that oral CBD combined with routine psychiatric care reduced frequent nightmares associated with PTSD.
One of the earliest reviews addressing CBD and dreams, published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 1981, showed that three 160-milligram doses of CBD were associated with more sleep and “significantly less dream recall” than control patients who didn’t take any CBD. Russo cautions that this study didn’t differentiate between pure CBD or an extract, and there was no mention of a vehicle. “We do not know what it was or how much got in.”
At this early stage of CBD research, this kind of inconsistency within and between studies is common and understandable, albeit frustrating. The industry has been referred to as the “wild west” for its lack of packaging standards.
At best, CBD product labels display the concentration in milligrams per milliliter. But the purity of the CBD isolate within those milliliters, and the presence of other compounds, are harder variables for which to create a control group. And considering the gray legal area in which CBD currently exists, it may be some time before its effects on sleep, dreams, and everything else it’s purported to touch can be distilled into a science.
For all we don’t know about CBD, the growing range of products on the market suggests a lot of people think that what we do know is enough. There are CBD treats for anxious dogs, CBD hamburgers for Carl’s Jr. fans, and even CBD seltzer for wellness-obsessed millennials.
Self-experimentation generally isn’t recommended when it comes to drugs, but CBD’s benign nature invites it.
“They don’t exactly know what’s in there. They oftentimes have to experiment, and that’s just the nature of using cannabis,” Vigil says about his patients. “Nobody really gets the same product twice. You have to engage in this trial and error, which is a fundamentally different process to what patients are used to, where we’re directed by our providers to take a certain dosage a certain time of day, and so forth.”
From Vigil’s perspective, experimentation is a good thing: Patients, he says, should be “forced to interact” with what they put into their bodies.
Surely, waking up with a racing heart and temples slick with lavender-scented sweat counts as forced interaction. But I had to accept that my hunch about CBD oil and nightmares would have to remain just that. The data to support it just doesn’t exist.
“There is no reason whatsoever that topical oils would increase vivid dreams,” Russo tells me. Straight from the guru’s mouth.
My conviction remains, fueled by all the unknowns about CBD. Acknowledging the chaotic state of the sprawling new industry, Shannon imparted these words of advice: “Buyer beware.”