CBD has been used in health supplements and cosmetics for decades, but you might not have come across it unless you were shopping at organic food markets and specialty stores. Only within the past few years has it slipped from the patchouli-scented shadows into the mainstream society spotlight.
Nowadays, CBD oil and related products are popping up everywhere, from major supermarkets and e-retailers to corner stores and farmer’s markets. This spring’s COVID-19 lockdown aside, you’d almost have to go out of your way not to come across it at this point.
Likewise, you’ve more than likely heard of its benefits, or at least its potential, for treating everything from anxiety to insomnia and even epilepsy. But if history has taught us anything about health fads, it’s that just because something is popular doesn’t mean you should try it (see colonics, tapeworms, or the “Sexy Pineapple Diet“). So is CBD just another fad, a potential threat to society, or a healthy, safe, and all-natural solution for a range of ailments? Here’s what you should know.
What Is CBD?
Generally, if health is the objective, you want to know what’s in a product before putting it in your body. CBD (Cannabidiol) is one of more than 140 naturally-occurring cannabinoids found in hemp and marijuana plants. Marijuana and hemp are both members of the cannabis plant family but contain different concentrations of the two best-known cannabinoids, CBD, and THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). Hemp plants, the source for most CBD oils, contain only trace amounts of THC (the compound in marijuana that gets you “high”). Even when made with CBD extracted from marijuana plants, CBD products typically do not contain any THC. And if there is a trace amount, it’s not enough to have any effect.
CBD interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), a vast network of neurotransmitters (endocannabinoids) and receptors responsible for controlling a range of bodily functions and processes. CBD specifically influences the CB-2 receptors, mostly found in the peripheral nervous system, especially the immune system. CBD essentially mimics endocannabinoids to help the ECS function more effectively. Using a CBD supplement is similar to taking vitamin D tablets. The body already produces cannabinoids but can sometimes benefit from having more of them to work with.
What the Science Says
Many CBD doubters say one source of their concern is the lack of definitive clinical evidence to justify recommending CBD as a health supplement or medical treatment. They have a fair point.
Most scientific CBD research thus far has been conducted on animal subjects. So far, very few clinical trials have been undertaken to study CBD’s efficacy in treating various human conditions.
However, there is an overwhelming amount of preliminary scientific evidence compiled from laboratory experiments, case studies, and research on animal models. The vast majority of research confirms CBD’s beneficial properties. At the very least, the evidence shows CBD has promise in treating several conditions, and, importantly, it has little to no risk of dangerous side effects or contraindications.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) is on board with CBD. The international health authority in 2018 published a critical review reporting CBD is a well-tolerated, safe solution for a range of medical conditions and does not seem to pose a risk for dependency, abuse, or other threats to public health.
Nonetheless, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved one prescription CBD medication. The drug, called Epidiolex, is used to treat two rare epilepsy forms that predominantly affect children. The manufacturers underwent nearly 20 years of research and clinical trials to obtain FDA approval. As you might guess, all of that research isn’t cheap, and sufficient funding isn’t always easy to come by. So while we can expect to see more FDA-approved CBD medications in the future, the time and financial commitments necessary to obtain approval are one significant reason there are not yet more on the market.
As you probably remember from science or statistics class, the bigger the sample size, the more accurate the survey results will be. For this reason, we can only reasonably expect that with more studies, we’ll learn more about what CBD is and is not good for. Currently, people are using CBD to treat a vast array of conditions. While there is plentiful evidence of CBD’s efficacy in treating some of these, such as anxiety, insomnia, arthritis, and certain neurological disorders, it is likely we will find CBD is not as useful for treating certain other conditions.
Benefits of CBD
Knowledge is power, and the more we know about CBD, the more effectively we can use it. We know so far that CBD’s influence on the endocannabinoid system and its anti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant, antioxidant, antiemetic, anxiolytic, antipsychotic, and anti-anxiety properties can positively impact a range of conditions. Studies so far confirm CBD can help treat ailments such as anxiety, schizophrenia, neuroinflammation, epilepsy, oxidative injury, vomiting, and nausea.
Many people have also reported success using CBD to treat ailments such as insomnia, depression, chronic pain, arthritis, diabetes, acne, fibromyalgia, heart disease, chronic pain, menstrual cramps, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy. It can also help people with addiction and dependence disorders.
Speaking with The New York Times, James MacKillep, co-director of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in Hamilton, Ontario, said “It’s promising in a lot of different therapeutic avenues because it’s relatively safe.”
Potential Side Effects
CBD, like any health supplement, carries some risk of side effects. But the likelihood of any serious adverse effects is minimal. Nonetheless, it’s always wise to consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or wellness regimen.
Writing for Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Peter Grinspoon, addressing the potential side effects of CBD, wrote, “Side effects of CBD include nausea, fatigue, and irritability. CBD oil can increase the level in your blood of the blood thinner coumadin, and it can raise levels of certain other medications in your blood by the exact same mechanism that grapefruit juice does. A significant safety concern with CBD is that it is primarily marketed and sold as a supplement, not a medication.”
The supplement vs. medication issue comes down to the aforementioned lack of clinical trials. The FDA doesn’t regulate the safety or purity of supplements, nor does it control or recommend dosage. For this reason, you’ll need to do some homework before buying a CBD product to ensure you’re getting what you’re paying for.
How to Find a Quality CBD Product
If you’re interested in trying CBD, consider asking friends or family members for recommendations. With thousands of people currently using CBD regularly, you more than likely have a few of them in your circle.
When shopping, look for a brand’s Certificate of Analysis, or COA. This third-party document signifies the CBD oil was tested for quality and purity, including levels of THC and CBD concentration and the presence of harmful contaminants like pesticides or heavy metals. Also, make sure the CBD oil manufacturer’s lab meets ISO 17025 standards, meaning it meets strict health and safety criteria. A company should also use a testing method validated by one of the three national standard-setting organizations: the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, or the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
If a retailer cannot or will not provide the COA, avoid that supplier and product. Also, turn away from any brand or supplier that makes specific health claims, such as stating their product can treat a particular ailment. It’s illegal for a CBD company to make any therapeutic claims. If in doubt, ask. Any reputable retailer should be happy to discuss the contents of their products (with verification) and what type of product might best suit your needs.