With an estimated more than one in five Australians living with a severe sleep disorder, research and interest in herbal therapies1 for the treatment of sleep disorders is increasing.
In addition to individual well-being, sleep disorders affect the entire community and affect productivity, alertness, and safety. A world’s first parliamentary study on sleep health awareness in Australia in 20182 found that poor sleep quality, a sleep disorder or interrupted sleep had negative long-term effects on health.
In addition to exhaustion, fatigue, and drowsiness, sleep disorders contribute to health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, mental health, and cardiovascular disease, which can make sleep health worse.
Frequent sleep disorders
A sleep disorder is more than just a bad night’s sleep. A sleep disorder3 is characterized by persistent problems falling asleep, staying asleep or recovering.
Environmental, physical, and psychological factors can all contribute to poor sleep. According to Sleep Disorders Australia4, some common sleep disorders include (but are not limited to) obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), restless legs syndrome (RLS), insomnia, narcolepsy, idiopathic hypersomnia, and circadian rhythm disorder.
The cost of insomnia
As part of the government’s sleep health investigation, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) 5 application found that sleep disorders lead to a number of negative outcomes. These include increased morbidity and mortality and “minor but measurable increases in the risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, [and] Depression”.
Aside from the individual health care costs of sub-optimal sleep, insomnia has a huge impact on the Australian economy. The total cost of insomnia for 2019-2020 was estimated at $ 51 billion6.
Diagnosing a sleep disorder
The benefit is that, once properly diagnosed, a doctor can usually treat a sleep disorder. The diagnosis can include a conversation, an overnight sleep study at home, or, depending on the severity, an evaluation in a sleep laboratory.
While each sleep disorder has a unique set of symptoms, some common signs of sleep disorder7 include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness or fatigue
- Breathing irregularly while sleeping
- Increased movement during sleep
- Irregular sleep and wake cycle
- Difficulty falling asleep
Other signs of insomnia include:
- Weight gain
- Decreased productivity at work or at school
- Lack of focus, concentration and daytime function
Sleep disorders and the endocannabinoid system
The body’s internal balance, including sleep regulation, is controlled by the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Endocannabinoids occur naturally in our body. Phytocannabinoids are found in plants and can mimic the effects of endocannabinoids. The body recognizes phytocannabinoids as endocannabinoids8.
A 2020 study entitled “Cannabinoids, Endocannabinoids and Sleep” 9 confirms the increased use of phytocannabinoids as sleep aids and found that “Endocannabinoids play an outstanding role in sleep and sleep neurophysiology and that cannabinoids change these processes”.
This study also found that although cannabis and sleep have been re-explored, there is an ongoing need for clinical research into the cannabinoid-sleep relationship.
Cannatrek10, based in Australia, supports the call for research. “The medical cannabis industry needs data,” said Tommy Huppert, CEO of Cannatrek – one of the first companies in Australia to hold a government-recognized medical cannabis license for the development, cultivation, manufacture and research of herbal therapies11. “Any way we can help data collection is important and helpful. We can support doctors and help them to find suitable dosages and stresses for different patients and different clinical pictures. “
Traditional treatments for sleep disorders
Traditional treatments for insomnia include medication for underlying conditions, over-the-counter and pharmaceutical grade sleeping pills, natural melatonin supplements, a respirator (for sleep apnea), a mouthguard (for teeth grinding), diet, exercise, and lifestyle adjustments.
Plant-based therapies for sleep disorders
Herbal therapies12 have been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions, including the use of cannabis to promote sleep. In recent years the Australian government has approved the use of prescription medical cannabis for qualified patients within the framework regulated by the TGA. Because medical cannabis is not without side effects, eligible patients are encouraged to visit the TGA website13 for more information.
Research into the use of herbal therapies for various conditions, including sleep disorders, continues. A 2020 study by the University of Western Australia14 found that “medicinal cannabis can be used as a novel treatment for adults with chronic insomnia”. Further studies and research15 on the use of herbal therapies for sleep disorders are ongoing in Australia and around the world.
Australian Parliament’s Sleep Health Awareness Report (2018). https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Health_Aged_Care_and_Sport/SleepHealthAwareness/Report/section?id=committees%2Freportrep%2F024220%2F26954#footnote61target
Immediate health insomnia (2020, August). https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/sleep-disorders
Sleep disorders Australia. https://www.sleepoz.org.au/
RACP filing for Parliamentary Inquiry into Sleep Health Awareness in Australia (2018, November). https://www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/advocacy-library/racp-submission-to-parliamentary-inquiry-into-sleep-health-awareness-in-australia.pdf
Report from the Deloitte Access Economics Sleep Health Foundation (2021, April). https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/files/Special_reports/Social_Economic_Cost_of_sleep_disorders_20042021.pdf
Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders (2019, August 10). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20354018
Journal of Young Investigators (2018, June 1). https://www.jyi.org/2018-june/2018/6/1/the-endocannabinoid-system-our-universal-regulator
NCBI: Cannabinoids, Endocannabinoids, and Sleep (2020, July 22nd). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7388834/
- Cannatrek. https://access.cannatrek.com/
NCBI: Observations on the Medicinal Properties of the Cannabis Sativa of India (1843, May 9). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2116906/?page=1
TGA information on medical cannabis. https://www.tga.gov.au/medicinal-cannabis-information-consumers
The University of Western Australia (2020, April 7th). https://www.news.uwa.edu.au/archive/2020040711981/research/cannabis-proven-help-insomniacs-sleep/
Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry. https://anzctr.org.au/trial/registration/trialreview.aspx?id=379003&isreview=true
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