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CBD: Safe solution or dangerous drug?

Humans have used cannabidiol, better known as CBD, in the form of cannabis for thousands of years in India, China, and beyond. Historically, people used it to treat everything from minor constipation and headaches to more intense conditions like epilepsy. In more modern times, the U.S. government actually had a patent on CBD’s pharmaceutical use that expired in May, 2019. The patent claims it as an antioxidant and neuroprotectant (brain and nervous system protector). While many products echo these claims, many more CBD products are marketed as a “cure-alls”. Are CBD’s claims of relieved pain, reversed depression, and rejuvenated skin based on any real evidence?

CBD safe solution or dangerous drug

When reading CBD’s risks and potential rewards below, please keep in mind that at the moment, there are very few high quality studies on the efficacy of pure CBD for any disorder. Research at this point is restricted due in part to cannabis’s federal classification as a Schedule 1 drug. In all of the studies linked below, CBD quantities and quality were heavily controlled (unlike in the current retail situation).

6+ Conditions CBD May be Effective For…

1. Neurological Disorders like Seizures, Epilepsy, & Parkinson’s Disease

lightning in dark stormy sky symbolic of seizure

Much of CBD’s current popularity can be attributed to a few sensational stories of success in children who experience frequent seizures. The first FDA-approved drug containing CBD was created as a treatment option for children with epilepsy. The drug, called Epidiolex, was developed specifically to treat the seizures that occur with two serious, life-threatening syndromes called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Epidiolex’s first trials did have some side effects (sleepiness, liver damage, decreased appetite, diarrhea, rash, insomnia, etc). But in light of successfully reducing the number of seizures children experienced, these are minor.

Beyond epilepsy, studies have also found that CBD can lead to better sleep and life quality for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

2. Pain (especially nerve pain)

network of nerves or neurons

Using cannabis for pain management is absolutely nothing new. Humans have been using it to treat pain since as early as 2900 B.C.

Studies in rats have shown CBD to reduce sciatic nerve pain and inflammation.

For pain management, CBD may work better in combination with THC. A nasal spray that contains both compounds, called Sativex, has decreased pain and muscle spasms in individuals with multiple sclerosis. Sativex had similar pain-reducing effects in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

3. Anxiety & Depression

distressed girl in dreary crowd social anxiety and depression

In people with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), taking CBD before a public speaking test reduced anxiety, cognitive impairment, and discomfort.

In another case, a 10-year old girl with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced reduced anxiety and better sleep when using CBD oil. CBD has also improved sleep and decreased anxiety in adults.

In mice, CBD administration has antidepressant-like effects. However, in humans there has been virtually no research on CBD as a treatment for depression.

CBD’s potential influence on anxiety and depression likely has to do with its interaction with serotonin receptors.

[Read more about how CBD affects the human brain and body]

4. Opioid Addiction

red poppy opioid addiction

Because of its potential pain-reducing effects, CBD may allow people experiencing chronic pain to take fewer opioids for pain management. In addition, there is emerging evidence that CBD may also combat the addiction itself.

In heroin-addicted rats, CBD injection made them less likely to seek heroin when exposed to a “cue”. And, their brains also experienced alterations to back up this behavioral shift. These results suggest CBD may help minimize heroin relapse and craving.

In humans, CBD may help manage addiction to tobacco and other drugs (review).

[Learn more about cues and what role they play in habit formation]

5. Psychotic Symptoms & Schizophrenia

collage of van gogh's self portrait
While artist Van Gogh may not have suffered from schizophrenia, he did experience periodic psychotic symptoms

One double-blind study found that six weeks of CBD treatment improved psychotic symptoms in individuals with schizophrenia. Some research suggests even a single CBD dose can “normalize” dysfunction in certain brain areas in people who are prone to psychosis.

A review of the literature suggests that while initial results are promising, large clinical trials are necessary before CBD should be formally introduced in a clinical setting.

6. Acne

woman with minor acne CBD skincare

When the cause of acne is related to issues with sebaceous (oil) gland production, CBD may help. Sebaceous glands in the skin produce sebum, an oily secretion that in excess can promote acne development. In a laboratory setting, CBD and other phytocannabinoids showed anti-inflammatory properties and the ability to reduce sebum production (study 1 and study 2).

5 Dangers of CBD

CBD is not a cure-all. In the vast majority of cases it does not live up to the hype.

And, right now, many CBD products are poor quality. To ensure that any CBD products you choose are reliable, pick products that have been tested by third party laboratories.

[5 Things to Know Before You Shop for Vitamins & Supplements PDF]

1. Inaccurate concentrations of CBD and/or THC

marijuana cannabis dried

As mentioned in the previous blog post, the actual CBD content can intensely vary, from ~0.1 mg/mL to ~655 mg/mL.

The THC content will also differ depending on the extraction and purification processes the manufacturers use. In ~25% of the 84 CBD products tested in one study, researchers found THC in measurable quantities. At a maximum of ~6.5 milligrams THC per milliliter, the undisclosed levels of THC in some products could result in intoxication or impairment, especially in children.

2. Contaminants like heavy metals and microbes

bacteria contamination

Because manufacturers generally extract CBD is from hemp, CBD products are vulnerable to heavy metal contamination and may contain bacteria or mold. Look at the product’s lab report to find detailed information on the levels of these potential contaminants. Can’t find any testing info, or the lab report is over 10 months old? Don’t purchase it!

If you’d like to keep an eye on which cannabidiol-related products have received formal warnings from the FDA, look here.

[Toxic Personal Care Products: 12 Ingredients to Avoid]

3. Side effects

tired woman at computer

As with any medication, side effects are a definite possibility with CBD usage. As of now, users most commonly report tiredness, diarrhea, and changes in appetite/weight.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure how CBD works, though they do know it targets a variety of cells. As a result, taking it may be riskier than taking other, better-researched medications.

4. Interference with other medications


5. Illegality

illegal vs legal slips of paper being picked up

Depending on the state, cannabidiol products (and cannabis in general) is subject to entirely different regulations. In most states, even if CBD is legal, THC may not be. As a result, the maximum amount of THC allowed in consumer products is generally 0.3% to 0.5% or less.

Shipping CBD products across state lines may be an illegal action under federal law. To check if CBD is legal in your state, try using the tool at the bottom of this page.

Summary: While CBD may be effective for a number of symptoms and conditions, the research is still in its infancy. If you are considering using CBD-containing products, it’s wise to consult a professional. Ensure that any products you purchase have been rigorously tested for actual CBD and THC content as well as for contaminants.

Is there more or less research behind CBD than you anticipated? Has CBD helped you manage any health conditions? Let us know in the comments below.