In humans, Cooper emphasized that oft-cited studies regarding CBD’s pain-relieving properties looked at it in combination with THC. For example, one 2010 study of 177 patients suffering from cancer-related pain found an extract containing CBD and THC to be about twice as likely to provide relief as an extract of THC alone.
In one cringe-inducing study, scientists evaluated rats’ sensitivity to pain by exposing their sciatic nerves with an incision, constricting those nerves with tiny threads, or injecting their paws with bacteria to induce inflammation. Then, they fed them CBD or a placebo every day for a week, and measured how quickly the critters withdrew their legs when exposed to heat or pressure, compared to how they reacted before their respective surgeries or injections.
“We are just at the cusp of trying to figure it out,” says Cooper. “So while people are using these drugs, science is very far behind right now.”
Could CBD ease my pain?
Evelyn Nussenbaum, the mother of the first patient to receive Epidiolex, remembered reading a study about treating seizures with CBD in (you guessed it) rats in 2011, and thinking, “My son needs access to that.” Her son Sam became part of a one-person trial at the University of California-San Francisco. His seizures were drastically reduced without side effects, and in 2015, the doctor overseeing his care co-authored a study of 214 patients with severe childhood-onset epilepsy that showed a 36.5% median decrease in seizures over a 12-week treatment period with oral CBD.
A review of the research on insomnia and cannabis up to 2014 concluded that “preliminary research into cannabis and insomnia suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) may have therapeutic potential for the treatment of insomnia.” It also found evidence that CBD may help treat REM sleep behavior disorder and excessive daytime sleepiness. That said, the study echoed Cooper’s disclaimers about the need for more controlled studies and said research on cannabis and sleep was “in its infancy.”
On top of that, researchers hypothesize that the endocannabinoid system—the network of neurotransmitters in our brains and nervous systems that’s stimulated by cannabinoids, including CBD—acts as a powerful “dimmer switch” that helps modulate brain activity and mood. Some even suggest it’s the endocannabinoid system, rather than endorphins, that exercise activates, resulting in the euphoric elation of a “runner’s high.”
But as Cooper notes, “to understand cannabidiol’s effect on anxiety, you want to test it in a population that has anxiety, and look at what happens when they’re using cannabidiol every day for a couple of weeks.” In this study, each subject only got a single dose.
Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a nearly 500-page report on the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. A committee of 16 experts from a variety of scientific and medical fields analyzed the available evidence — more than 10,000 scientific abstracts in all. Because so few studies examine the effects of CBD on its own, the panel did not issue any findings about CBD specifically, but it did reach some conclusions about cannabis and cannabinoids more generally. The researchers determined that there is “conclusive or substantial evidence” supporting the use of cannabis or cannabinoids for chronic pain in adults, multiple sclerosis-related spasticity (a kind of stiffness and muscle spasms), and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The committee also found “moderate” evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids can reduce sleep disturbances in people with obstructive sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis, as well as “limited” evidence that these substances can improve symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, increase appetite and stem weight loss in people with HIV/AIDs, and improve symptoms of PTSD and anxiety.
What makes CBD so appealing is that it’s non-intoxicating, so it won’t get you high, though it “is technically psychoactive, because it can influence things like anxiety,” Jikomes said. Although much of the marketing blitz around CBD centers on the fact that you can take it without getting stoned, there isn’t much research looking at the effects of CBD when used in isolation, with a couple of exceptions. One is the use of CBD to treat seizures: CBD is the active ingredient in the only cannabis product that the Food and Drug Administration has signed off on — a drug called Epidiolex, which is approved for treating two rare forms of epilepsy. Animal models and a few human studies suggest that CBD can help with anxiety, but those are the only conditions with much research on CBD in isolation.
Most of these products promised to relieve pain or otherwise enhance well-being, and none of it was cheap. (Prices started at about $30.) But I wanted to know: Does any of this stuff really work? After a deep dive into the scientific research, I learned that the answer was a big fat maybe.
Those warning letters aside, there’s not a lot of federal oversight right now over the claims being made or the products that are being sold. Cohen warned against buying CBD products online, because “there’s a lot of scams out there.” Yet his clinic sells CBD, and he admits, “I say ‘Don’t buy online,’ but ours is worth doing, because we know what we’re doing. We ship all over.”
Cannabinoids are a class of compounds that interact with receptors throughout your body. CBD is just one of dozens of cannabinoids found in cannabis, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the one responsible for marijuana’s famous high. Medical cannabis is technically any cannabis product used for medicinal purposes, and these can contain THC or CBD or both, said Nick Jikomes, a neuroscientist at Leafly, a website that provides information about legal cannabis. “A common mistake people make is to think that CBD is ‘the medical cannabinoid’ and THC is ‘the recreational cannabinoid.’” That’s inaccurate, he said, because THC is a potent anti-inflammatory and can be helpful for pain.
Still, as the saying goes, absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence, and there’s a reason we don’t have a ton of solid research on CBDs yet — “to study it, we need a good source, ” said Ziva Cooper, who is an associate professor at Columbia University and was on the National Academies committee. CBD is hard to get because it’s still technically a Schedule I drug, which limits its availability, Cooper said.
Although there’s enticing evidence that good ol’ cannabis can ease chronic pain and possibly treat some medical conditions, whether CBD alone can deliver the same benefits remains an open question. What is clear, at this point, is that the marketing has gotten way ahead of the science.
Some CBD manufacturers have come under government scrutiny for wild, indefensible claims, such that CBD is a cure-all for cancer, which it is not. We need more research but CBD may be prove to be an option for managing anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain. Without sufficient high-quality evidence in human studies we can’t pinpoint effective doses, and because CBD is currently is mostly available as an unregulated supplement, it’s difficult to know exactly what you are getting. If you decide to try CBD, talk with your doctor — if for no other reason than to make sure it won’t affect other medications you are taking.
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 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.
The bottom line on cannabidiol
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.
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.
Side effects of CBD include nausea, fatigue and irritability. CBD 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. Currently, the FDA does not regulate the safety and purity of dietary supplements. So, you cannot know for sure that the product you buy has active ingredients at the dose listed on the label. In addition, the product may contain other (unknown) elements. We also don’t know the most effective therapeutic dose of CBD for any particular medical condition.
CBD is commonly used to address anxiety, and for patients who suffer through the misery of insomnia, studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep.