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Since the mid-2010s, CBD products have come into the spotlight as a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals for pain relief, anxiety, beauty products, pets, and more. In this article, we’ll focus on three basic questions for people new to CBD, and try to give some context: what is it, why is it so popular, and what does the science say about it?
What is CBD?
CBD is short for cannabidiol (pronounced canna-b’-dye-all). It’s one of the two main compounds in cannabis and belongs to a family of molecules appropriately called cannabinoids. It’s non-intoxicating, unlike THC, the other main cannabinoid, and is usually secondary to THC in terms of what’s in the plant. However, there are exceptions where CBD is dominant, notably industrial hemp, which is low in THC by definition, and Charlotte’s Web, a strain of cannabis discussed further below. There are many other cannabinoids in the plant as well – CBN, CBG, and CBC, to name a few – but these are typically found in much lower amounts.
Why is CBD so Popular?
Ignoring history, CBD is popular nowadays because it’s received a lot of recent attention as a sort of natural remedy for a wide range of ailments, for use with pets and even skincare and beauty products. But the question is a lot harder to pin down in full context. We’ll talk about the history in more detail in a future article, but here we want keep to things simple. Overall, CBD’s popularity seems to come from a wide range of things, including more research, more media coverage, celebrity recognition, marketing, social media sharing, and of course changing attitudes towards marijuana’s legal status. Two things stand out in terms of early impact though:
The first is the story of Charlotte Figi1, a young girl in the US who went from as many as 300 seizures a week, despite various treatments, down to 2-3 seizures a month after taking cannabis oil with high CBD and low THC. Her story was widely reported in 2013, and the strain of cannabis used for the oil was renamed Charlotte’s Web in her honour – a big upgrade from the old name, Hippie’s Disappointment. This had a big impact2 on attitudes towards cannabis in the US, with hemp being removed from the Controlled Substances Act in 2014 and legalized in 2018 with the US Farm Bill.
The second is more of a subjective experience on my part, but in the earlier days of the CBD industry (around 2016), I noticed companies and websites raving about CBD almost entirely in the context of the endocannabinoid system3, the body’s cannabinoid-specific signaling system*. They’d also often talk about the entourage effect4, an idea from the science literature that all of the compounds in cannabis work together to achieve much more than they can individually. CBD was kind of marketed as this completely safe, all-natural remedy that unlocks your endocannabinoid system and brings biological functions into balance. It largely misrepresented the actual science, but from what I saw it seemed to catch on and spread the cannabis wellness vibes quickly for a while before CBD became more mainstream.
* This system was discovered in the ’90s and has been found in most animals (other than insects), including humans. It’s partially responsible for the runner’s high experienced by athletes, and also plays a role in key biological functions like pain, anxiety, inflammation, and immune function (to name just a few).
What Does the Science Say?
The short answer is that there’s both good news and bad news regarding the science, but as it stands trying CBD is still an experimental undertaking. It’s always best to talk to your doctor or a medical professional before taking any health supplement or drug, especially if you take medication or have a serious condition. While many people figure out dosing through trial and error, careful monitoring, and learning on their own, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The good news is that research indicates that CBD is generally safe and has a potential role in relieving many of the conditions it’s hyped up over5,6. As a matter of fact, the first major clinical achievement for CBD so far is Epidiolex7, an FDA-approved pharmaceutical formulation for patients with severe forms of epilepsy. As a result, there is more interest and more research is being done.
The bad news is that the research is slow, we don’t know much about the long-term effects of CBD and it’s difficult to say how effective it is scientifically. There’s a lot of context that scientists have to work very carefully to account for in their research, which is why the huge amount of CBD anecdotes and testimonials are taken with a grain of salt in the scientific community. There are a lot of regulatory motions to go through as well6.
Most of the research is still small-scale6. Many of the positive indications come from animal studies or at best small clinical trials, which is far from conclusive evidence8. And it’s slow to scale up, so there’s no established clinical dose of CBD for any ailment and probably won’t be for a while. The gold standard of evidence will come from top-quality studies like large-scale clinical trials and meta-analyses9 (where they analyze the quality of multiple experiments and statistically combine their results to make more meaningful conclusions that take all the research into account).
So that’s it for our intro – hopefully, it was an informative read for newcomers, if not an interesting one for those who’ve already seen a thousand introductions to CBD. We’ll have more detailed information coming in the near future, but for now, stay tuned for our next article, CBD Safety, where we’ll discuss side effects, drug interactions, and general precautions.
See you next time,
- Young S. Marijuana stops child’s severe seizures. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/07/health/charlotte-child-medical-marijuana/index.html. Updated August 7, 2013. Accessed August 26, 2020.
- Blistein J. Charlotte Figi, Poster Child for Medicinal Benefits of CBD, Dead at 13. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/charlotte-figi-dead-obit-cbd-medical-marijuana-980454/. Published April 8, 2020. Accessed August 26, 2020.
- Silver RJ. The Endocannabinoid System of Animals. Animals (Basel). 2019;9(9):686. Published 2019 Sep 16. doi:10.3390/ani9090686 – PMC
- Cogan PS. The ‘entourage effect’ or ‘hodge-podge hashish’: the questionable rebranding, marketing, and expectations of cannabis polypharmacy [published online ahead of print, 2020 Mar 2]. Expert Rev Clin Pharmacol. 2020;1-11. doi:10.1080/17512433.2020.1721281 – PubMed
- World Health Organization. CANNABIDIOL (CBD): Critical Review Report. https://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/CannabidiolCriticalReview.pdf. Published 2018. Accessed August 28, 2020.
- Eisenstein M. The reality behind cannabidiol’s medical hype. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02524-5. Updated July 23, 2020. Accessed August 26, 2020.
- Greenwich Biosciences, Inc. EPIDIOLEX: A treatment innovation. https://www.epidiolex.com/about-epidiolex. Accessed August 28, 2020.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Committee’s Conclusions. https://www.nap.edu/resource/24625/Cannabis_committee_conclusions.pdf. Published January 2017. Accessed August 27, 2020.
- Haidich AB. Meta-analysis in medical research. Hippokratia. 2010;14(Suppl 1):29-37. – PMC
These articles are not intended to serve as medical advice, and in the case of referenced sources, do not necessarily reflect the authors’ or collaborators’ opinions. Our aim is to help present reliable information in a way that’s accessible to the average reader, and we try, to the best of our ability, to preserve the context of our sources in this endeavour.