Seeking an alternative, another friend, Julia, swears by melatonin or marijuana extracts. A synthetic form of melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain, has been approved by the F.D.A. as a dietary supplement and some researchers believe it helps with the memory loss, depression, nightmares and confusion attending cancer treatment. Julia, a therapist, has patients who have been helped by marijuana-related sleep aids containing CBD or THC. CBD oils (cannabinoids extracted from hemp plants) do not produce the high of marijuana, while THC products (tetrahydrocannabinol from cannabis plants) do.
In our country, the legality of their use differs by state. CBD products are generally available, whereas the legality of THC as well as marijuana is evolving. That marijuana has been classified a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration deters researchers from testing cannabinoids, according to the American Cancer Society.
While Traci and Julia touted CBD or THC tinctures and vapes, salves and candies, I realized that I had no idea how they would interact with the experimental drug I take daily in my clinical trial. Also, many of these commodities are not well regulated in terms of exactly what is in them or what dosages should be. Nor is it clear how or whether they work. So I whittled down slivers of Ambien and stayed on course.
Then another member of my cancer support group, Dana, lent me her copy of “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.” Its author, the neuroscientist Matthew Walker, argues that eight hours of sleeping lowers the risk of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancer. What I saw in this list was a bleak subtext: The insomnia often produced by cancer treatment undermines the body’s ability to protect itself from cancer and other ills. Just as frightful, Dr. Walker wonders whether medication-induced sleep provides “the same restorative immune benefits” as natural sleep.
Cancer patients need strong immune systems to ward off recurrence, so maybe we shouldn’t be taking sleeping pills at all. Bowled over by Dr. Walker’s research, I studied the National Institutes of Health’s list of good “sleep hygiene” practices and read about cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, which provides techniques in meditation, image visualization and relaxation.