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Cannabidiol (CBD)-what we know and what we don’t

Cannabidiol (CBD) is often covered in the media, and you may see it touted as an add-in booster to your post-workout smoothie or morning coffee. You can even buy a CBD-infused sports bra. But what exactly is CBD? And why is it so popular?

How is cannabidiol different from marijuana, cannabis and hemp?

CBD, or cannabidiol, is the second most prevalent active ingredient in cannabis (marijuana). While CBD is an essential component of medical marijuana, it is derived directly from the hemp plant, a cousin of marijuana, or manufactured in a laboratory. One of hundreds of components in marijuana, CBD does not cause a “high” by itself. According to a report from the World Health Organization, “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…. To date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”

Is cannabidiol legal?

CBD is readily obtainable in most parts of the United States, though its exact legal status has been in flux. All 50 states have laws legalizing CBD with varying degrees of restriction. In December 2015, the FDA eased the regulatory requirements to allow researchers to conduct CBD trials. In 2018, the Farm Bill made hemp legal in the United States, making it virtually impossible to keep CBD illegal – that would be like making oranges legal, but keeping orange juice illegal.

The Farm Bill removed all hemp-derived products, including CBD, from the Controlled Substances Act, which criminalizes the possession of drugs. In essence, this means that CBD is legal if it comes from hemp, but not if it comes from cannabis (marijuana) – even though it is the exact same molecule. Currently, many people obtain CBD online without a medical marijuana license, which is legal in most states.

The evidence for cannabidiol health benefits

CBD has been touted for a wide variety of health issues, but the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), which typically don’t respond to antiseizure medications. In numerous studies, CBD was able to reduce the number of seizures, and, in some cases, stop them altogether. Epidiolex, which contains CBD, is the first cannabis-derived medicine approved by the FDA for these conditions.

Animal studies, and self-reports or research in humans, suggest CBD may also help with:

    Studies and clinical trials are exploring the common report that CBD can reduce anxiety.
  • Insomnia. Studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • Chronic pain. Further human studies are needed to substantiate claims that CBD helps control pain. One animal study from the European Journal of Pain suggests CBD could help lower pain and inflammation due to arthritis when applied to skin. Other research identifies how CBD may inhibit inflammatory and neuropathic pain, which are difficult treat.
  • Addiction. CBD can help lower cravings for tobacco and heroin under certain conditions, according to some research in humans. Animal models of addiction suggest it may also help lessen cravings for alcohol, cannabis, opiates, and stimulants.

Is CBD safe?

Side effects of CBD include nausea, fatigue and irritability. CBD can increase the level of blood thinning and other medicines in your blood by competing for the liver enzymes that break down these drugs. Grapefruit has a similar effect with certain medicines.

People taking high doses of CBD may show abnormalities in liver related blood tests. Many non-prescription drugs, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), have this same effect. So, you should let your doctor know if you are regularly using CBD.

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A significant safety concern with CBD is that it is primarily marketed and sold as a supplement, not a medication. Currently, the FDA does not regulate the safety and purity of dietary supplements. So, you cannot be sure that the product you buy has active ingredients at the dose listed on the label. In addition, the product may contain other unknown elements. We also don’t know the most effective therapeutic dose of CBD for any particular medical condition.

How can CBD be taken?

CBD comes in many forms, including oils, extracts, capsules, patches, vapes, and topical preparations for use on skin. If you’re hoping to reduce inflammation and relieve muscle and joint pain, a topical CBD-infused oil, lotion or cream – or even a bath bomb — may be the best option. Alternatively, a CBC patch or a tincture or spray designed to be placed under the tongue allows CBD to directly enter the bloodstream.

Outside of the US, the prescription drug Sativex, which uses CBD as an active ingredient, is approved for muscle spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis and for cancer pain. Within the US, Epidiolex is approved for certain types of epilepsy and tuberous sclerosis.

The bottom line on cannabidiol

Some CBD manufacturers have come under government scrutiny for wild, indefensible claims, such that CBD is a cure-all for cancer or COVID-19, which it is not. We need more research but CBD may prove to be a helpful, relatively non-toxic option for managing anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain. Without sufficient high-quality evidence in human studies, we can’t pinpoint effective doses, and because CBD currently is typically available as an unregulated supplement, it’s hard to know exactly what you are getting.

If you decide to try CBD, make sure you are getting it from a reputable source. And talk with your doctor to make sure that it won’t affect any other medicines you take.

How To Use CBD To Help Alleviate Anxiety

Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an integrative medicine physician with expertise in functional and holistic medicine based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Commissions we earn from partner links on this page do not affect our opinions or evaluations. Our editorial content is based on thorough research and guidance from the Forbes Health Advisory Board.

Table of Contents

  • CBD for Anxiety
  • How to Use CBD for Anxiety
  • CBD Dosage for Anxiety
  • Potential Risks and Side Effects

While delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can have a bad rap for being intoxicating and anxiety-inducing, cannabidiol (CBD) can actually be used to relieve anxiety. Research supports this benefit, with several studies reinforcing the positive effects CBD can have on various anxiety conditions. In fact, 51% of U.S. adults who use CBD do so to help alleviate their anxiety, according to a recent Forbes Health survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by OnePoll.

CBD isn’t yet legally cleared as an anxiolytic, or anxiety relief medication. Therefore, it’s up to you—and, ideally, a doctor who specializes in cannabis administration—to determine whether CBD is a safe treatment for your anxiety.

Here’s what the science says regarding CBD’s anxiolytic properties, along with experts’ dosage guidelines and advice on how to take CBD safely.

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CBD for Anxiety

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve any CBD-based medications for anxiety. However, many studies indicate the substance can be an effective anxiolytic.

CBD for Generalized Anxiety

In 2011, a small trial-tested CBD on participants with generalized social anxiety disorder (SAD) and healthy control patients undergoing a simulated public speaking test (SPST), which is a common anxiety testing method [1] Bergamaschi MM, Queiroz RH, Chagas MH, et al. Cannabidiol reduces the anxiety induced by simulated public speaking in treatment-naïve social phobia patients. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011;36(6):1219-1226. . Compared to a placebo, CBD significantly reduced anxiety and discomfort in the participants with SAD. In fact, their reduced anxiety levels were comparable to those of the control participants.

Eight years later, a 2019 test compared the efficacy of three CBD doses (150 milligrams, 300 milligrams and 600 milligrams) and a placebo in men taking an SPST [2] Linares IM, Zuardi AW, Pereira LC, et al. Cannabidiol presents an inverted U-shaped dose-response curve in a simulated public speaking test. Revista brasileira de psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999). 2019;41(1):9-14. . Compared to a placebo, 300 milligrams of CBD significantly reduced participants’ anxiety during the speech, but the 150-milligram and 600-milligram doses did not. These results highlight how dosage can be highly variable and that more CBD isn’t necessarily more effective.

Meanwhile, another 2019 study tested CBD in much lower doses than most other clinical studies—some participants consumed 25 milligrams a day while others consumed 50 milligrams or 75 milligrams a day [3] Shannon S, Lewis N, Lee H, Hughes S. Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series. Perm J. 2019;23:18-041. . Researchers thought higher doses might be too expensive for participants to maintain in their normal lives and that low doses would still prove effective. Indeed, anxiety decreased within the first month for most participants and remained low. Sleep quality also improved, although it fluctuated more than anxiety. Only three patients reported side effects.

CBD for Anxiety and Depression

In 2020, researchers tested the effects of CBD oil at varying doses across 397 patients with a variety of ailments [4] Gulbransen G, Xu W, Arroll B. Cannabidiol prescription in clinical practice: an audit on the first 400 patients in New Zealand. BJGP Open. 2020;4(1):bjgpopen20X101010. . Participants with non-cancer pain or mental health-related symptoms experienced significant improvement in anxiety and depression, as well as in their abilities to complete their usual activities. The use of CBD oil suggested significant pain relief in these groups as well.

CBD for PTSD and Phobia Therapy

A small 2019 study of 11 patients found that, when consumed orally and administered alongside routine psychiatric care, CBD decreased patients’ posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity [5] Elms L, Shannon S, Hughes S, Lewis N. Cannabidiol in the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Series. J Altern Complement Med. 2019;25(4):392-397. .

Other studies suggest CBD can reduce PTSD symptoms when consumed with THC [6] Bitencourt RM, Takahashi RN. Cannabidiol as a Therapeutic Alternative for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: From Bench Research to Confirmation in Human Trials. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:502. . When taken together, the two compounds create what’s known as the “entourage effect,” where THC enhances the effects of CBD as CBD tempers the effects of THC, resulting in a more well-rounded experience [7] Ferber SG, Namdar D, Hen-Shoval D, et al. The “Entourage Effect”. Terpenes Coupled with Cannabinoids for the Treatment of Mood Disorders and Anxiety Disorders. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2020;18(2):87-96. .

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Some studies also suggest CBD can enhance the effects of exposure therapy—which assists patients in dissociating certain cues with a fear response—and cognitive behavioral therapy [8] Das RK, Kamboj SK, Ramadas M, et al. Cannabidiol enhances consolidation of explicit fear extinction in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013;226(4):781-792. [9] Blessing EM, Steenkamp MM, Manzanares J, Marmar CR. Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders. Neurotherapeutics. 2015;12(4):825-836. .

How to Use CBD for Anxiety

Without clear FDA guidance, optimal CBD use for anxiety varies from person to person. You may find one method works better for you over another. You can consume CBD in the following forms:

  • Oils and tinctures, which come in dropper bottles and are consumed by mouth
  • Gummies, which are chewable, sweet and often fruit-flavored
  • Sprays, which come in bottles with a nozzle to be sprayed in the mouth
  • Capsules, softgels or tablets, which are taken individually by mouth like a pill
  • Vapes, which heat CBD oil without igniting it, resulting in an inhalable vapor
  • Flowers, which are dried hemp plants that are typically ignited and smoked
  • Creams and gels, which introduce CBD topically (through the skin) as a more localized treatment

You may have to try different forms to determine what works best in addressing your anxiety. For instance, when it comes to the absorption of CBD in your bloodstream, vaping and smoking are more effective than edibles like gummies.

CBD Dosage for Anxiety

You also have to find the right CBD dosage for your anxiety. Experts suggest starting small and working your way up depending on how your body reacts.

Many clinical trials jump right to testing high doses. Successful doses evaluated for anxiety relief specifically include:

  • 600 milligrams in patients with SAD in a speech simulation [10] Bergamaschi MM, Queiroz RH, Chagas MH, et al. Cannabidiol reduces the anxiety induced by simulated public speaking in treatment-naïve social phobia patients. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011;36(6):1219-1226.
  • 300 milligrams in male patients in a speech simulation [11] Linares IM, Zuardi AW, Pereira LC, et al. Cannabidiol presents an inverted U-shaped dose-response curve in a simulated public speaking test. Revista brasileira de psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999). 2019;41(1):9-14.

However, other trials suggest much lower doses are also quite effective in treating anxiety.

  • 25 to 75 milligrams for generalized anxiety and/or sleep problems [12] Shannon S, Lewis N, Lee H, Hughes S. Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series. Perm J. 2019;23:18-041.
  • 33 to 49 milligrams a day for PTSD, in addition to routine psychiatric treatment [13] Elms L, Shannon S, Hughes S, Lewis N. Cannabidiol in the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Series. J Altern Complement Med. 2019;25(4):392-397.

Another study involving hundreds of patients noted success with doses from 40 milligrams to 300 milligrams a day, further supporting the idea that CBD dosage varies significantly, depending on a person’s symptoms and physiology.

Potential Risks and Side Effects

The World Health Organization deems CBD a safe and generally well-tolerated substance. Studies report very few adverse effects, if any.

However, taking CBD while on other medications may pose a risk, as these substances may interact and cause unwanted effects, such as weight gain, drowsiness, upset stomach and change in appetite.

Cheryl Bugailiskis, M.D., a cannabis specialist at Heally, a telehealth platform for alternative medicine, also warns people with preexisting liver injuries and people taking medications that can cause liver injuries should practice caution when using CBD.