CBD: A medical cure-all or mostly hype?

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CBD: A medical cure-all or mostly hype?

It’s happened again.  About every 30 years or so, a new supposedly cure-all substance comes along touting to be the answer to alleviating all sorts of medical maladies. This time it’s CBD (cannabidiol), a chemical found in marijuana.  In case you have not read or heard about CBD, you must be living under a rock.  The CBD craze has taken off like a rocket since Congress passed a farm bill late last year, lifting a decades-old ban on growing hemp.  Hemp is a member of the Cannabis Sativa family (a cousin of the marijuana plant) and as long as the plant contains less than 0.3% THC (the ingredient in pot that produces a “high”), it is now legal to grow hemp anywhere in the U.S. by licensed farmers.

Besides legalizing growing hemp, what else is driving CBD’s popularity? Behind the wheel of the CBD bandwagon are proponents making various claims of the magic powers of this substance.  These claims include CBD’s ability to inhibit cancer cell growth, slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, relieving nerve pain and fibromyalgia, and reducing withdrawal symptoms of people undergoing substance abuse treatment. 

At this time, CBD is readily available in most parts of the U.S. 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 does not habitually enforce against it.

The evidence for CBD health benefits

While the flood of claims being made of the various health issues CBD supposedly cures seems impressive, what scientific evidence is there backing them up? The truth is not much.

To date, there is only one use for CBD that has significant scientific evidence behind it. This evidence is for treating some of the rare forms of epilepsy such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS). Both of these types of epilepsy typically do not respond to anti-seizure medications. Numerous studies have shown CBD reducing the number of seizures and in some cases, stopping them altogether. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug Epidiolex to treat these two forms of childhood epilepsy.

Another potential medical use for CBD might be for treating symptoms of anxiety disorder.  While it is possible CBD might help, more studies are needed to confirm it. There has also been some indication that CBD may help with individuals to fall asleep and to stay asleep.

Other health conditions CBD claims to be useful for is as an anti-inflammatory and a pain reliever. Again, neither of these claims has been conclusively proven. The reason why marijuana has been shown to be effective for relieving pain is because of the THC component in this substance.  That is what provides pain relief. But CBD barley contains any THC so there is not much reason to believe it to be very effective if at all for pain.

Is CBD safe and is there any potential harm?

Whenever a product is being sold touting it to cure any and everything under the sun, the question is can it really and how safe is it?  One of the major concerns with CBD is there is very little scientific studies that have been done on it before it exploded onto the public market. Even most herbal supplements will have at least some studies on them before they become popular.

CBD is currently being sold in several different forms – as an extract, a vaporized liquid, and an oil-based capsule.  It’s being found in certain foods, drinks, and beauty products and other CBD-infused products available in stores and online. But studies have shown that most of these products fail tests for content and purity. A 2017 study concluded that nearly 7 of 10 CBD products did not contain the amount of cannabidiol promised on the label.  In addition, nearly 43% of the products contained too little CBD, while about 26% contained too much.  Even worse, about 1 in 5 CBD products contained the THC, the intoxicating chemical found in marijuana.

As far as potential harm, one study found that CBD might make the eye disease glaucoma worse.  Researchers found that CBD eye drops increased ocular pressure in mice; this has led researchers to speculate that CBD would have the same effect in humans.

While CBD is generally well-tolerated by most people, it can also carry some risks. Reported side effects of CBD include dry mouth, diarrhea, reduced appetite, drowsiness, and fatigue. CBD can also has the risk of interacting with other medications such as blood thinners.

The bottom line on CBD

Anytime a product becomes wildly popular so quickly, it’s best for all consumers to slow down, taking their time to do some research.  With very few legitimate uses for CBD at this time, it simply requires more extensive knowledge and research. More studies are necessary to determine exactly how the human body responds to this compound before it can legitimately be recommended for medical conditions, as in the case of epileptic seizures.

Without sufficient high-quality evidence in human studies just yet, it is also hard to pinpoint effective doses of CBD.  At this time, CBD is currently mostly available as an unregulated supplement, making it difficult to know exactly what you are getting.

Your best advice – talk with your doctor who knows your medical history. Ask them their opinion about using CBD. Have them do a review of any medications you are using making sure none of them would have any adverse reactions with CBD.   

Maybe someday, CBD will be regularly recommended to use for various medical conditions.  But until we know much more about it, it’s best to take things slowly and cautiously to protect your health.