What Is CBD? What to Know Before You Buy

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Despite the rise in popularity of CBD in the health and wellness industry over the past few years, there are still more questions than answers surrounding the product. It’s derived from cannabis, but it won’t get you high. It's advertised as a cure for all types of medical conditions, but there's only one CBD drug approved by the FDA so far. And, depending on whom you ask, it’s either a miracle cure or 21st-century snake oil. So what is CBD, and what should people know before trying it for themselves?

What is CBD?

The chemicals in cannabis are called cannabinoids, and in marijuana, which is a type of cannabis plant, the most prevalent and well-known cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This is what gives marijuana its psychoactive proprieties. The second-most common active compound found in the plant is cannabidiol, or CBD, which doesn’t produce any mind-altering effects on its own. CBD can also be found in hemp, another cannabis plant with far less THC than marijuana (around 0.3 percent or less, compared to marijuana's 5 to 20 percent). Instead of consuming it for recreation, people seek out CBD for its purported therapeutic benefits, including help with pain and anxiety.

Does CBD work?

Name an ailment, and there’s a good chance that CBD has been touted as the cure. But according to Adriaan Zimmerman, longtime entrepreneur and co-founder of the hemp product company Ned, you should be wary of anyone advertising CBD oil as a wonder drug. “[CBD] has so many amazing benefits, but if you were drinking six cups of coffee a day and drinking a bottle of wine at night, not exercising, and eating processed foods, you’re pretty much shoveling snow at a blizzard,” he tells Mental Floss.

Devotees of Ned's products seek out the company's hemp oils for a number of reasons, including help with stress or insomnia. "The predominant one is a general sense of calm or less anxiety," Ned co-founder Ret Taylor, whose background is also in business, says. "So really just the ability to relax and shut down."

While there's no shortage of sensational CBD headlines and claims to wade through, there is some evidence that CBD does have promising medicinal properties for certain issues. "The [applications for CBD] that seem most promising may be anxiety, pain, and insomnia," Dr. Tim Welty, professor and director of research, innovation, and global initiatives at the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at Drake University, tells Mental Floss.

There's some early research that backs up these claims. After analyzing thousands of scientific abstracts, a committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that cannabis can be used to treat chronic pain—though there wasn't enough evidence to support that CBD is effective on its own without other cannabinoids, such as THC. Regarding mental health, one small experiment in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology suggested that CBD reduces nervousness around public speaking in people with social anxiety. The findings on CBD's calming effects vary, however. A different study found that CBD didn't change how healthy participants reacted to unpleasant stimuli compared to a placebo group.

Welty notes that the placebo effect has been observed in CBD studies looking at ailments across the board, so "the jury's still out on whether or not they will be shown to be effective" in these areas.

Pet wellness is another area that CBD companies are marketing toward, but Welty cautions against giving any of the products to your dog or cat, since he says the research on its effects on animals is even flimsier than it is for human patients. "I would be very hesitant about using CBD on a pet because there’s such little evidence to support that it’s safe, number one, and also that it’s effective," Welty says.

Currently, there's only one CBD-derived product available with FDA approval—a drug called Epidiolex that treats two rare forms of epilepsy. CBD is still new to the market, which means there isn’t yet a robust body of research to support whatever benefits it may have. More research is still needed to understand the compound's relationship to conditions like chronic pain and anxiety, but if CBD does work, it may function much differently than most pharmaceuticals.

“It’s not an acute treatment of sorts,” Zimmerman says. “It’s really a cumulative effect, so it takes time and consistency to really feel the benefits of the product.”

What are the risks involved with CBD?

Despite the small pool of studies and lack of FDA regulation, many people are willing to bet on CBD because the risks seem relatively low. That being said, the product isn't totally free of side effects. "If CBD were a pure, clean drug without side effects, without drug interactions and all that, I’d probably say fine, go ahead and try it," Welty says. "But we know there are side effects for CBD and that there are drug interactions with CBD. So because of those two things, one has to be very, very cautious about experimenting with it."

According to the Harvard Health Publishing blog, common side effects of CBD include fatigue, nausea, and, irritability. The New York Times also reported that some patients using Epidiolex had side effects that included elevated liver enzymes.

CBD may also be a problem if you’re regularly tested for marijuana use. Drug tests detect THC, and even though CBD products don’t have enough THC to get you high, some contain trace amounts that can potentially show up in tests. “It’s unlikely, but there’s a chance, and we don’t think anybody whose job depends on that should take that chance,” Taylor says.

Is CBD legal?

Since the 2018 Farm Bill passed in the U.S., there has been no federal law against buying and using CBD derived from a hemp plant with less than 0.3 percent THC; however, some states have passed their own restrictions on CBD usage—in Virginia, for example, you can only use CBD with a prescription, according to PBS.

The laws are much stricter for the businesses selling CBD. All health products, dietary supplements, and foods featuring the ingredient are technically illegal if they haven't been approved by the FDA. Sellers can get around this law if they avoid making any claims about their products' health benefits. Any CBD product derived from a marijuana plant, which contains higher THC, is still illegal at the federal level, though certain states have legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational use.

What should I look for when buying CBD?

CBD’s popularity has skyrocketed faster than scientists and government regulators can keep up with, which means the products on the market vary wildly in quality. One rule of thumb to follow when shopping for CBD is to avoid gimmicky cash-grabs. Coffee, smoothies, and snacks with CBD on the label likely don’t contain enough of it to produce any real effects. You can also find CBD in products that aren't meant to be consumed, like skin creams, but those haven't yet been tested enough to truly know their effectiveness.

Over on the Harvard Health blog, Dr. Donald Levy, medical director at the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, specifically recommends staying away from any CBD product that you have to smoke. Instead, it's suggested to take products orally as tablets, chewables, or tinctures.

Another sign that a company should be avoided is if they don’t mention testing in their marketing materials; if you can’t find evidence of tests or studies on the product's website, they likely don’t exist. “There are a lot of products that don’t get third-party lab testing,” Zimmerman says. “When companies operate with transparency, they’re basically screaming their lab tests off the rooftops.”

A third-party lab test confirms that a bottle of CBD oil contains whatever’s on the label. Because CBD products aren’t regulated by the FDA, there’s no reason to trust you’re getting what you pay for if the seller offers no proof. So when you're on a CBD website, look for certificates of tests done on their products from private labs, like the ones on Ned.

Finally, you should always research where a CBD product comes from before paying for it. CBD, just like the produce in your fridge, is a crop grown by farmers, and you can be just as picky with your hemp products as you are with your groceries. Ned’s oil is made from organic hemp grown on a Colorado farm and is meant to be administered with a dropper directly under the tongue and held there for at least 60 seconds.

To harvest the oil from the plants, Ned uses a slow, cold extraction method that takes place at -17°F. “What that does is reduce the heat and pressure from the extraction process,” Zimmerman says. “So we’re not burning off any of the good natural constituents from the plant or the flowers. And the end result is this incredibly aromatic oil.”

The current CBD market can be overwhelming, and the science can be equally confusing. And while it's still too early to tell how effective CBD actually is, there are plenty of choices out there for consumers willing to give it a shot—just be sure to do your research first.