CBD, short for cannabidiol, is a chemical compound from the cannabis plant. It’s a naturally occurring substance that’s used in products like oils and edibles to impart a feeling of relaxation and calm. Unlike its cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it’s not psychoactive.
So you’re saying CBD won’t get me high?
Nope. The cannabis plant is made up of two main players: CBD and THC. “CBD is the non-psychoactive portion of the plant, so what that means is you won’t have any effects like euphoria,” says Junella Chin, DO, an osteopathic physician and a medical cannabis expert. “You won’t feel sedated or altered in any way.”
There are two possible exceptions to this. The first is that some people, for unknown reasons, just react differently to CBD. According to Dr. Chin, about 5% of people say they feel altered after taking CBD. “Usually they’re the same people who have side effects from Advil or Tylenol,” she says. You never know how your body will react to any new supplement, so when taking CBD for the first time, do so safely under supervision.
It’s also crucial to buy third-party-tested CBD for quality assurance (more on this later). Because the FDA doesn’t regulate CBD, it is possible to buy a product that is more or less potent than advertised, or even contains small amounts of THC.
Where does hemp come in to all this?
You’ve probably heard the terms cannabis, marijuana, and hemp all tossed around in relation to CBD. The plant Cannabis sativa has two primary species, hemp and marijuana. Both contain CBD, but there’s a much higher percentage in hemp, which also has very low (less than 0.3%) levels of THC compared to marijuana.
When people talk about hemp oil, they’re referring to oil extracted from the seeds of the hemp plant. There are no cannabinoids—CBD or THC—in hemp oil. This ingredient is packed with healthy fats and often appears in beauty products for its moisturizing benefits.
What are the health benefits of CBD?
The only CBD medication that is currently FDA-approved is Epidiolex, which the agency approved last year for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy. But many people swear CBD has helped with many other health conditions, including back pain, osteoarthritis, even cancer.
“My practice has patients walking in every day asking about CBD,” says Houman Danesh, MD, director of integrative pain management for the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. But while there’s lots of anecdotal evidence, he says, “it’s still very difficult to say” what the real benefits are due to a serious lack of research.
“Right now, you just have pharmacies trying to make some sort of sense out of it and say, ‘Yes, it works for this,'” he says, “but that’s not the way medicine is practiced—it should be based on evidence, and there’s not a lot of evidence to really support these claims.”
Still, is CBD worth trying for pain management?
There are two main types of pain, Dr. Danesh says: musculoskeletal and nerve. “There could be benefit for both conditions,” he says.
The tricky part is that there’s some evidence suggesting CBD works best for pain when combined with a little THC, says Dr. Danesh. “Depending on what type of pain you have, you might be able to do just CBD, but sometimes you need CBD and THC”. Full Spectrum CBD can have less than 0.3% THC.
Figuring out how much you should take is challenging as well; the dosage that alleviates one patient’s pain might do very little for someone else. “And until we can study it, it’s the wild west,” Dr. Danesh says.
The takeaway? “I think CBD is a safe thing to try,” says Dr. Danesh. But he urges patients to push for more research by putting pressure on representatives to get national bills passed that allow scientists to look closer at CBD and the conditions that respond to it.
What about my anxiety—can CBD help with that?
CBD might be worth trying to manage symptoms of anxiety. “[CBD] tells your body to calm down and reminds you that you’re safe,” Dr. Chin says. “It mellows out the nervous system so you’re not in a heightened ‘fight or flight’ response,” she says, so people with anxiety may find it helps them feel more relaxed.
Still, one of the biggest misconceptions about CBD is that it’s a wonder drug. “A lot of times people think CBD is a cure-all, and it’s not,” Dr. Chin says. “You should also have a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and good nutrition—CBD is not going to fix everything.”
Tinctures, vape pens & edibles… What’s the best way to take CBD?
It really depends on what your goal is and why you’re taking CBD in the first place.
Some people don’t want to ingest anything and therefore prefer a topical CBD cream or ointment. You can apply it to muscles, joints, and ligaments and still get a nice, localized release.
The biggest differences between tinctures, edibles, and vape pens are speed of delivery and how long the effects last. Vape relief is faster but wears off faster too—usually in about two hours.
Tinctures and edibles take longer to work but last four or five hours. “A tincture looks like a little liquid that you put under your tongue, and you feel relief within half an hour,” Dr. Chin says. “If you prefer to taste something, you choose an edible, whether it’s a capsule, gummy, or baked good.”