What Is CBD? What to Know Before You Buy

HighGradeRoots, iStock via Getty Images
HighGradeRoots, iStock via Getty Images

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.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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