Cannabidiol (CBD) has been recently covered in the media, and you may have even seen it as an add-in booster to your post-workout smoothie or morning coffee. What exactly is CBD? Why is it suddenly so popular?
CBD is readily obtainable in most parts of the United States, though its exact legal status is in flux. All 50 states have laws legalizing CBD with varying degrees of restriction, and while the federal government still considers CBD in the same class as marijuana, it doesn’t habitually enforce against it. In December 2015, the FDA eased the regulatory requirements to allow researchers to conduct CBD trials. Currently, many people obtain CBD online without a medical cannabis license. The government’s position on CBD is confusing, and depends in part on whether the CBD comes from hemp or marijuana. The legality of CBD is expected to change, as there is currently bipartisan consensus in Congress to make the hemp crop legal which would, for all intents and purposes, make CBD difficult to prohibit.
How is cannabidiol different from marijuana?
CBD has been touted for a wide variety of health issues, but the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), which typically don’t respond to antiseizure medications. In numerous studies, CBD was able to reduce the number of seizures, and, in some cases, it was able to stop them altogether. Videos of the effects of CBD on these children and their seizures are readily available on the Internet for viewing, and they are quite striking. Recently the FDA approved the first ever cannabis-derived medicine for these conditions, Epidiolex, which contains CBD.
CBD stands for cannabidiol. It is the second most prevalent of the active ingredients of cannabis (marijuana). While CBD is an essential component of medical marijuana, it is derived directly from the hemp plant, which is a cousin of the marijuana plant. While CBD is a component of marijuana (one of hundreds), by itself it does not cause a "high." According to a report from the World Health Organization, "In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…. To date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD."
CBD may offer an option for treating different types of chronic pain. A study from the European Journal of Pain showed, using an animal model, CBD applied on the skin could help lower pain and inflammation due to arthritis. Another study demonstrated the mechanism by which CBD inhibits inflammatory and neuropathic pain, two of the most difficult types of chronic pain to treat. More study in humans is needed in this area to substantiate the claims of CBD proponents about pain control.
In adjusted logistic models, more males (47.4%) were using CBD for general health and wellbeing than females (30.7%; aOR 0.464, [95% CI 0.30–0.72], p = 0.001). More females were using CBD for self-perceived anxiety (47.9%) than males (34.2%; aOR 1.595, [95% CI 1.021, 2.49], p = 0.04), and for self-perceived insomnia (females 28.6%, males 17.8%; aOR 1.871, [95% CI 1.125–3.112], p = 0.015). More males (14.1%) than females (7.1%) were using CBD for post-workout sore muscles (aOR 0.462, [95% CI 0.236–0.905], p = 0.024).
Other perceived benefits of cannabidiol amongst adult cannabidiol users. Respondents were asked what other benefits or effects they feel from using cannabidiol. Participants were allowed to select multiple options. X-axis is the percentage of total responses (n = 906)
Reasons for cannabidiol use amongst 397 adult cannabidiol users who were allowed to respond to more than one option leading to a total of 1622 responses. Y-axis represents percentage based on total responses
In the past years, cannabidiol (CBD), one amongst hundreds of naturally occurring phytocannabinoids found in the Cannabis sativa plant, has received a lot of attention from scientific communities, politicians, and mainstream media channels. CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid in the Cannabis sativa plant after delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but unlike THC, CBD is not intoxicating (Pertwee 2008). In many countries, including the UK, there is unsanctioned availability of products containing CBD, from oils and capsules to chewing gums, mints, soft drinks, gummies, and intimate lubrication gels.
The popularity of CBD can be partly explained by an increasing number of preclinical and clinical studies indicating a range of potential health benefits. However, mass media interest also plays a significant role. Studies suggest CBD might help with mental health symptoms and neurological conditions like experimentally induced anxiety (Zuardi et al. 1993), generalised social anxiety disorder (Bergamaschi et al. 2011), social phobia (de Faria et al. 2020), and conditions like PTSD (Elms et al. 2019; Shannon and Opila-Lehman 2016) schizophrenia (Zuardi et al. 2006; Leweke et al. 2012; Morgan and Curran 2008; Schubart et al. 2011), addiction (Hurd et al. 2019; Hindocha et al. 2018; Galaj et al. 2020), and epilepsy (Devinsky et al. 2017; Devinsky et al. 2018b; Cunha et al. 1980). These mental health disorders are often co-morbid and include other symptoms CBD might help with, e.g. sleep and impaired cognition. There is also data to suggest CBD could help treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease (Watt and Karl 2017; Fernández-Ruiz et al. 2013; Esposito et al. 2006), Parkinson’s disease (Fernández-Ruiz et al. 2013; García-Arencibia et al. 2007), and chronic pain conditions including fibromyalgia (Van De Donk et al. 2019), either alone or with THC (Rog et al. 2005; Berman et al. 2004; Wade et al. 2003; Svendsen et al. 2004; Notcutt et al. 2004). Additionally, in more than 30 countries, health authorities have approved CBD, under the name Epidiolex, to treat two severe forms of treatment-resistant childhood epilepsy (Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome) (Devinsky et al. 2016; Silvestro et al. 2019). Sativex, a sublingual spray containing an equal amount of THC and CBD, is also approved to treat multiple sclerosis in more than 30 countries (Keating 2017).
That’s certainly storybook enough. So, is CBD a miracle cure? Despite its promise, if you’re someone who hopes to read that science proves CBD is a wonder product, I’m afraid this isn’t the place to look.
You can see the limits of existing CBD research: multiple small trials that yield conflicting results, along with RCTs and meta-analyses that too often include marijuana and mixed THC/CBD compounds rather than just pure CBD products—many of them in varying amounts. These certainly influence the results, and they also leave consumers rightly wondering what the proper dose for them might be.
The truth is unforgiving. The studies around pure CBD—that is, CBD without THC—are limited due to the fact that some are small and inconsistently designed. Jason White, who chairs the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, told me in an interview that he believes the number of randomized control trials (RCTS) specific to pure CBD is small, likely fewer than 10. Outside of one prescription drug created to treat two rare pediatric seizure disorders, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not evaluated or approved pure CBD for any therapeutic use. This is a thicket of often conflicting claims.
“You don’t know the dose, you don’t know the formulation and therefore [you don’t know] the absorption,” White told me. “In a lot of places, it’s essentially a backyard pharmacy where people just sort of make it up…. When you get in a situation where people are kind of doing it themselves then that is really out of control.”
At Golden State Greens shop, Jake C. told me that CBD containing THC is highly regulated by the state of California, and he believes the products to be safe and labeled appropriately. However, he said over-the-counter hemp-derived CBD (depending on state regulations) or black-market cannabis product, could have wildly varying amounts of THC and CBD, to say nothing of potential contaminants.