Coping with a serious illness is hard. Of course, everyone wants to be as healthy as possible, with as few side effects from treatments as possible. In an effort to improve their health, many patients turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). This post provides information on the pros and cons of CBD for medical conditions.
I strongly encourage you to read the first post in the series for important general information on CAM treatments. Additionally, read my other posts to learn about the pros and cons of additional common CAM treatments:
- Acupuncture, Ayurveda & Reiki
- Chiropractic, Osteopathy and Homeopathy
- Naturopathy, Tai Chi and Dietary Supplements
- Yoga and Magnetic Therapy
It’s important to realize that CBD and other CAM treatments come with some degree of risk (as do all other medical treatments and medications). So before you try it, you should consider the pros and cons of CBD. Do some research, talk to your doctor, and be realistic about potential outcomes. And don’t ignore traditional treatments while pursuing CAM therapies.
CBD – cannabis plant extracts
CBD, formally known as cannabidiol, naturally occurs in cannabis plants. The CBD extract does not get you high but may provide health benefits. On the other hand, THC is the component in marijuana that makes you high.
What’s the difference between hemp and marijuana?
Hemp is the common, legal term used for cannabis that has less than 0.3% of THC. Conversely, marijuana is the common, legal term for cannabis that contains more than 0.3% of THC.
Interesting fact – there are more than 100 chemicals in marijuana!
What kinds of conditions can CBD help?
Nobody knows for sure. But a 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) report team determined that CBD has “been demonstrated as an effective treatment for epilepsy” for adults, children, and animals. Furthermore, the WHO report states that there is “preliminary evidence” that CBD could help Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, psychosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other serious conditions.
Importantly, clinical studies of CBD use FDA-approved CBD which is grown and treated according to stringent guidelines. On the other hand, non-FDA-approved, commercial CBD products sold to the public differ significantly in composition from those used in clinical studies, and there is limited evidence to support their safety.
Therefore, you should realize the CBD you buy may pose risks that can cause you harm.
What about pain relief?
There is some evidence that CBD may help relieve pain – for some patients. But the evidence is inconclusive.
For instance, in 2021, an international group of researchers analyzed dozens of studies evaluating the pain relief provided by non-inhaled medical cannabis. (Note: the studied cannabis likely contained varying levels of THC and CBD.)
The researchers concluded there is not enough evidence to say that medical marijuana helps relieve chronic pain. They found the “use of medical cannabis or cannabinoids probably results in a small increase in the proportion of patients experiencing an important reduction of pain”.
Additionally, they found that medical cannabis or cannabinoids led to a “very small increase” in the number of patients experiencing an important improvement in physical functioning.
What about other pain studies?
Other studies provide some hopeful information. A 2018 report reveals that a combination of THC and CBD provided some pain relief for cancer patients. And one study with rats found topical CBD application relieved arthritis pain-related behaviors and reduced inflammation without any evident side-effects.
Other research found that CBD might reduce inflammation, which is often related to pain. Additionally, some small, preliminary human trials found there is a chance that CBD may help alleviate neuropathic pain (pain caused by nerve damage).
What do customers say?
In 2018, results of a survey of CBD users found that almost 62% of CBD users reported using CBD to treat a medical condition – the top three were pain, anxiety, and depression. About 36% of respondents stated that CBD treats their medical condition(s) “very well by itself”. In contrast, only 4.3% stated that it treated their conditions “not very well”. It’s worth noting that 1/3 of users reported a non-serious adverse effect.
What are the pros and cons of CBD?
In my opinion, CBD has the potential to help many people with a variety of health conditions. However, experts still do not know the extent to which CBD can help and harm people. And concerns about the quality and safety of CBD products should make you think twice.
For instance, the 2018 WHO report on CBD found no adverse health outcomes, or any potential for addiction or abuse. However, because marijuana has historically been illegal in the US, it’s been hard for researchers to study the impact.
Importantly, there are still a lot of unknowns, including appropriate dosing, how it gets absorbed, and how CBD interacts with other medications.
Buyer’s beware – you don’t always know exactly what you’re getting!
A major issue right now with CBD is quality and safety. Since the FDA isn’t regulating CBD products, it’s a bit of the wild west out there, with new products and online stores regularly entering the market. And some manufacturers are more trustworthy than others.
For instance, some manufacturers use chemicals such as butane and hexane to extract the CBD, which can leave unwanted, potentially harmful residue in the product. In contrast, others use “green” techniques which extract the CBD using CO2, which is considered safer.
Another major concern is that labels on CBD products are often inaccurate. Findings of a 2017 study causes alarm – researchers tested 84 CBD products and determined that 70% were mislabeled.
Similarly, a 2020 FDA study of 102 CBD products found the following:
- 18% contained less than 80% of the amount of CBD indicated on the label.
- 45% contained CBD within 20% of the amount of CBD indicated.
- 37% contained >120% of the amount of CBD indicated.
Alarmingly, 49% of the products tested contained THC – the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.
Clearly, this is an industry that lacks safety standards, accuracy in labeling, and quality control. Therefore, you might unknowingly buy a CBD product that contains THC, which can cause unintended intoxication, a particular concern for children. Alarmingly, you may ingest traces of dangerous chemicals. And you might get more or less of the CBD dosage you expect.
If/when the pharmaceutical industry manufactures and sells CBD products, we will likely see an increase in FDA-approved CBD products. I expect this will give customers a sense of security regarding the purity of FDA-approved CBD products.
Is CBD legal?
Not necessarily. Last year, the US government legalized hemp and the extract CBD as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. But it’s all a bit confusing.
Hemp is now legal, but the government has not created a system which allows people to freely grow hemp. Furthermore, the government still considers marijuana illegal, and since CBD comes from marijuana, it’s a very gray area.
To make the matter even more confusing, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have different laws regarding hemp and marijuana. Wondering what the laws are in your state regarding CBD and marijuana? Look your state up here.
What’s the FDA think about CBD?
The FDA is in the beginning stages of supporting CBD products. In 2018, the FDA approved the first CBD drug. The medication, made by a British pharmaceutical company, is for the treatment of severe epilepsy in children. I expect we’ll see more pharmaceutical companies making CBD products in the coming years.
It’s important to understand that the FDA is not regulating production of CBD products, so you don’t always know what you’re buying. However, even though the FDA isn’t regulating production, they are trying to make sure companies don’t make “unsubstantiated advertising claims”, such as claiming a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s.
Where can you get CBD products?
Here, there and everywhere.
There is a huge industry around CBD. Note that some products only contain CBD, while others contain CBD and THC.
You can buy CBD products almost anywhere – at your local gas station or pharmacy (including some CVS and Walgreens stores) and at a wide range of other stores. Additionally, there are countless online stores selling CBD products.
What kinds of products contain CBD?
You name it, you can find it. Products with CBD include lotions, oils, creams, shampoos, candies, cookies, beers, and even makeup.
How popular is CBD?
Very! In a 2020 poll of US adults 2020, 33% reported using CBD products.
There’s been a lot of positive information flowing about the benefits of CBD, but there has not been a lot of scientific study. So, consider the pros and cons of CBD, and discuss it with your doctor before starting CBD. And definitely do your research about which products you buy!
NOTE: I updated this post on 5-3-23.