Is there a substance that gives us the health benefits of marijuana without getting us stoned?
Some people think the answer lies in cannabidiol, or CBD. Like the more well-known tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), this molecule is very abundant in cannabis; in some cases, CBD is the most or second-most abundant molecule. And they both come from the same plant, though CBD is mostly found in a different strain, called hemp.
But compared to THC, cannabidiol doesn’t create psychoactive results — and that’s why you see people selling CBD oil you can take by mouth to relieve chronic pain, inflammation, or anxiety. Though you can easily buy it on the internet, CBD falls under the same laws as marijuana, meaning that it’s illegal at the federal level. But it’s not clear whether you’re getting your money’s worth.
First things first: that CBD oil definitely won’t have the same effects as smoking marijuana. The active psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, THC, binds very well to the cannabinoid 1 receptor in the central nervous system, says Sachin Patel, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies cannabis. Researchers only figured out the shape of this receptor last year, and the way that THC binds is responsible for a lot of the subjective effects of getting high.
CBD simply doesn’t bind the same way. And it’s generally not dangerous either, adds Patel. People have been given large doses of CBD in clinical trials and not had much happen to them.
So CBD is safe, and it won’t make you high. But should you shell out for the oil?
Truth is, says Patel, “it’s unknown what its real effects are” because there’s not enough research. Most of the CBD studies going on right now are focus on cases such as childhood epilepsy that haven’t responded to traditional treatment, or schizophrenia and anxiety. Some rodent studies suggest that CBD might interact with the chemical serotonin, according to Patel. Anti-depressants work with serotonin as well, so perhaps CBD might also interact with serotonin to be effective at reducing anxiety.
There are some differences when it comes to studying CBD extract versus the whole plant. The marijuana plant is a “very complex mixture,” says Norbert Kaminski, a toxicologist at Michigan State University who studies the effects of cannabinoids on the immune system. It contains over 60 different related cannabinoids, of which THC and CBD are just two, and of course different strains have more or less of these cannabinoids. So, studying one isolated component might not tell you much about how the entire plant works, or how big of a benefit that particular compound provides. “Studying mixtures of compounds is a very complicated thing to do and so most scientists isolated purified compounds such as CBD or THC,” he says. “But there have not been many studies where we’ve studied them in a systematic way as mixtures.”
Ultimately, says Kaminski, “there’s really a great need for more cannabis studies conducted in people.” These types of studies have been very difficult because historically there has not been much support or funding for research looking at the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids, as opposed to the dangers. In the meanwhile, the good news is that that even if that hemp oil won’t make your anxiety any better, at least it can’t hurt.