As 2020 gets underway, the deluge of CBD products continues. Suddenly, CBD oil is everywhere: from CBD skincare to lattes to CBD-laced treats for Fido and Fluffy’s aging joints. But is the craze legitimate or is it all hype? We’ve delved into recent studies to get the facts on the current state of CBD products.

cannabis plant with the chemical composition of CBD overlayed

What is CBD?

Cannabis plants produce over 100 different chemicals called cannabinoids. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), responsible for the high people get when smoking marijuana, is the most abundant and the most famous. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the second most abundant chemical in cannabis plants. Unlike THC, it doesn’t cause psychoactive intoxication. Most people won’t feel altered after ingesting CBD, but about 5% of people could be exceptions to this.

Human bodies naturally produce cannabinoids that are involved in pain sensation, mood, sleep, appetite and other bodily functions. CBD may interact with — and amplify — the effects of these cannabinoids already in the body. People ingest CBD products by smoking, vaping, eating gummies, taking pills, applying patches and creams, and placing tinctures under their tongues.

Facts about CBD

In 2018, Congress passed a law legalizing hemp in all 50 states and removing CBD from the controlled substance list. The idea was to allow manufacturers to use hemp to make textiles, concrete, paper and other products. The CBD boom was a side effect.

a hand in blue gloves holding a cannabis plant

But do CBD products work? While users provide anecdotal evidence, researchers aren’t so sure. “The main problem is that not enough medical studies have been done to offer any kind of clear guidance,” Dr. Jordan Tishler, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and president of the Association of Cannabis Specialists, said on the Harvard Medical School website. He attributes some CBD success stories to a placebo effect.

Along with the efficacy question, lack of oversight in CBD products is a problem. “Right now, there is no way to know for certain whether a product contains any CBD at all, or is safe from contamination,” says Tishler. “Worse, we’ve found that some companies have even added other medications to CBD products, like opioids and benzodiazepines.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still figuring out how to regulate CBD products. While CBD supplements can’t legally be marketed with specific therapeutic or medical claims, tricky manufacturers are using vague terms like “joint health” or “calm” or “relax” to suggest unproven product benefits. “Until the FDA finalizes how it will regulate CBD, it’s not cracking down on many false claims or overseeing how products are made,” says Tishler. “This means companies can put out all kinds of CBD products with zero accountability.”

a dropper bottle next to a cannabis plant and seeds

Some doctors are hopeful about proving the benefits of CBD products. As Health reports, “CBD might be worth trying to manage symptoms of anxiety.” Dr. Junella Chin, an osteopathic physician and a medical cannabis expert for cannabisMD, added, “[CBD] tells your body to calm down and reminds you that you’re safe. It mellows out the nervous system so you’re not in a heightened ‘fight or flight’ response.” However, Chin emphasized that CBD isn’t a cure-all.

So far, the FDA has only approved one CBD product, a prescription drug to treat certain types of epilepsy. The FDA warns consumers about the potential of harming themselves with CBD products, citing liver injury and drug interactions as top concerns. Consumers might not connect subtler side effects with CBD use, such as drowsiness, irritability and gastrointestinal distress. The FDA also emphasizes that the long-term effects of CBD products are unknown, as are the effects on developing teen brains, fetuses, breastfed infants and male reproduction.

Most popular CBD products

Some of the most popular CBD products include topical creams, CBD bath bombs, CBD skincare and CBD pet products, such as tinctures and calming chews. But how do you assess the onslaught of items made with CBD oil? None of these have so far been subject to FDA evaluation. And, despite what promises they make on their labels, CBD products are not a substitute for medical diagnosis and care.

dropper bottles laying next to cannabis leaves of various sizes

When you look at a CBD product, note the label. All dietary supplements should have back panels including an FDA disclaimer and a warning section. “Ideally, it would be preferable to have access to their third-party lab testing results too,” Brandon Beatty, an executive vice president of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, said in an interview with Health. Third-party testing confirms that the label is accurate. For example, a 2017 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 26% of the 84 CBD products tested contained lower doses than the label stated. You can check the brand’s website if you don’t see that info on the label.

You’ll also want to read the label carefully for dosing instructions and to determine whether the CBD is isolate or full-spectrum. The latter means the product may contain additional cannabinoids, which are sometimes more effective — and consequently may require a smaller dose.

Responsible manufacturers of CBD products should also include a batch number on the packaging. “This is a huge indicator as to whether they are following good manufacturing practices,” said Beatty. “There should be a way to identify this product in case it was improperly made so the company can carry out a recall.”

+ Harvard Medical School

Via FDA and Health

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