CBD: Is It Really Healthy, or All Just Hype?
The cannabis derivative is popping up in everything from moisturizers and gummies to shampoos and even pillows. But does it actually do anything?
Could taking a dropperful of CBD oil under your tongue each night alleviate menopause symptoms, reduce pain, and prevent cognitive decline? Will slathering on CBD-infused cream fight acne, eczema — or even skin aging?
Increasingly ubiquitous CBD storefronts hawk products ranging from lollipops to lubricants, and CBD is being added to everything from smoothies to shampoos. There’s even a CBD-infused pillow. How much of this is hype versus actual health benefits?
Studies suggest that CBD (short for cannabidiol, a derivative of cannabis) may have surprising and wide-ranging health benefits. It may reduce anxiety and depression, promote more restful sleep, prevent the neuro-degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and possibly fight tumors. “Research has begun to indicate that CBD may have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant, antidepressant, antipsychotic, antitumoral and neuroprotective qualities,” notes Jonathan Kost, MD, medical director of the Hartford Hospital Pain Treatment Center and the Spine and Pain Institute at MidState Medical Center. “But more studies are needed to further validate these findings.”
Technically, CBD is only FDA-approved to treat childhood seizure disorders. But recent surveys indicate that CBD products are widely used by American consumers for other medical conditions, and commonly to alleviate chronic pain. This isn’t surprising considering CBD’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties. “One of the remarkable potentials of CBD is its potential to have a direct influence on a person’s sensation of pain,” says Dr. Kost, pointing to a recent Syracuse University study suggesting that CBD doesn’t necessarily lower the intensity of pain, but rather the feelings of unpleasantness associated with it. “It appears to affect the brain’s emotional reaction to pain,” he explains.
Unlike THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, CBD does not make you high. Extracted from the marijuana or hemp plant, it can be eaten, inhaled (vaped), taken sublingually or used topically. The best way to take it depends on what you are taking it for, says Timothy Byars, president and Chief Education Officer of Radicle Health, which educates healthcare professionals about how to use cannabinoids (compounds found in cannabis) to treat age-related and chronic illness. “When you put something on topically, it can help locally; inhale or ingest it, and it works systemically,” he explains. “For example, a CBD topical is a good choice for arthritis in the hands and feet, since those joints are close to the surface, but a topical is not going to do much for arthritis in the spine.”
The Lowdown on Health Benefits
According to Byars, there are literally thousands of studies on cannabis and its constituents in the medical literature. “Cannabis is the most rigorously studied plant on the planet,” he says. Though much of the CBD research to date has been conducted in animal and test tube studies — or in small human studies that need to be replicated in larger populations — the possible health benefits extend far beyond reducing pain. Here, some exciting potential uses — and a look at the science behind the buzz:
1. Managing menopause symptoms. When researchers from the State University of New York at Albany surveyed menopausal and postmenopausal women who had used cannabis in the past year, subjects reported that cannabis helped relieve anxiety, irritability, depression, joint/muscle pain, hot flashes and sleep problems. Does CBD have the same effect? Despite the array of CBD-infused products being marketed to this population, experts say, the jury is still out on the usefulness of CBD as an antidote to menopause woes. “Unfortunately, CBD alone has not been used in a trial for menopause,” says Mitch Earleywine, PhD, co-author of the cannabis study and professor of psychology at SUNY Albany. “But the sleep and anxiety findings for CBD are pretty impressive.”
2. Battling insomnia. Anxiety often exacerbates insomnia, and CBD appears to reduce anxiety, so this could be one explanation for how CBD might support sleep. In a 2019 study of 72 patients that assessed the effect of CBD on both sleep and anxiety, 79 percent of participants reported reduced anxiety and 67 percent reported better sleep after taking a 25mg CBD capsule daily. Cortisol levels decreased even more significantly when subjects took 300 or 600 mg of CBD oil. (Having high cortisol levels at night is associated with increased nighttime awakenings.) According to Byars, how you take the CBD is going to affect the time of onset and the duration of its effect. “For people who are having trouble falling asleep, inhalation may have a more immediate effect,” he says. “If you’re having trouble staying asleep, ingestion might be more helpful.” Byars notes that in some women, low doses of CBD may actually be alerting, so consult with your healthcare provider or dispensary on the most effective dosage.
3. Protecting the brain. “Another fascinating potential benefit of CBD may be its ability to protect the brain from diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia,” says Dr. Kost. Not only has research demonstrated CBD’s ability to prevent free-radical damage, reduce inflammation, and protect brain cells, he says, but CBD works in concert with the body’s endocannabinoid system — the same system that is involved in the development of new brain cells. One study showed that CBD also affects the expression of the Alzheimer disease-related gene. “It may play a role in whether or not you actually develop the disease that you are genetically predisposed to,” Dr. Kost explains.
4. Soothing the skin. Recent research has shown that the endocannabinoid system also plays a critical role in maintaining the health of skin cells, as well as their barrier function, says Dr. Kost. Plus, he says, scientists have found that CBD can penetrate skin cells to counter the damage caused by the sun’s UV rays. Laboratory studies have also suggested that CBD has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects on human skin cells — and thus may be beneficial for those suffering from conditions like acne, psoriasis or eczema. What about CBD-enhanced cosmetics? “Adding CBD to makeup and applying it topically might be helpful to damaged skin (given CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties),” says Byars. “Will it make your skin look younger? It’s premature to make that statement.”
5. Fighting cancer. Doctors have used CBD and cannabis to reduce pain, relieve nausea and restore appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy, but preliminary research suggests that CBD and other cannabinoids might actually inhibit tumor growth. Studies also show that cannabinoids block the development of blood vessels needed by tumors to grow, that they protect against inflammation of the colon and thus may reduce colon cancer risk, and that they kill liver and breast tumor cells while protecting normal cells. CBD, in particular, has been shown to have anti-tumor effects in pancreatic, breast, colorectal, prostate and brain cancer. But most of the CBD cancer research to date has been conducted in test tubes and in animals, says Byars, so more human studies are needed.
Trying CBD? What to know
While CBD from marijuana is state-regulated and sold through dispensaries, the CBD products you find in the drugstore or online are more likely to come from hemp. Though CBD is the same molecule regardless of which plant it comes from, the hemp industry is not regulated, so dosing claims on hemp-derived CBD products are not always reliable. Plus, CBD from hemp may contain contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria or fungus, not to mention traces of THC that can show up on drug-screening tests. “Buyer beware remains the approach to purchasing hemp CBD until better guidance is obtained,” says Dr. Kost, who is also a member of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection’s Medical Marijuana Program Board of Physicians.
When purchasing hemp-derived CBD products, check to see if the manufacturer is certified by the US Hemp Authority, which essentially shows that the products have been tested for contaminants, or ask to see a Certificate of Analysis, a document from an accredited lab that confirms the product has undergone quality testing and meets advertised specifications.
Keep in mind that CBD can interact with certain medications — such as the blood thinner warfarin and the breast cancer drug tamoxifen — affecting their metabolism by the liver and thus increasing or decreasing their levels in the blood. And though some studies have suggested CBD may help with depression, it may also interfere with the effect of antidepressant medications and cause side effects.
The bottom line, says Byars: “If you are using CBD — or cannabis — as a medicine, you should be treating it as a medicine and getting your information from a healthcare provider.”
The Society of Cannabis Clinicians website can help you find a practitioner near you who is knowledgeable about using cannabinoids to treat your condition.