YYou may have seen it at your local health store, local spa, or corner cafe. CBD, also known as cannabidiol, is being mixed into cocktails, lotions and beverages.
But what exactly is CBD? Does it have real health benefits? Is it even safe?
To better understand the compound, TIME spoke with two scientists at the forefront of CBD research: Dr. Esther Blessing, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, and Margaret Haney, a professor of neurobiology at the CBD Medical Center. Columbia University and director of the university’s Marijuana Research Laboratory.
Blessing and Haney agree that current evidence suggests that CBD is promising to help treat some diseases. In June 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first cannabis-derived drug, Epidiolex, which contains purified CBD, to treat certain rare childhood seizures. However, much of the research on CBD is only in its very early stages and scientists still don’t know much about it, even if it has long-term negative effects.
Also, CBD that is available in stores and online is not regulated by the government, which means it may contain other ingredients, or not even any CBD, Blessing says. Haney warns that much of the CBD on the market could be “snake oil.”
Here’s what you need to know about CBD.
How does CBD differ from marijuana?
The drug marijuana, also known as weed or pot, is the leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant.
Cannabidiol is a natural compound found in cannabis plants. CBD can be extracted from the same plant as marijuana or hemp, another cannabis plant that is now legal in the United States.
Hemp has very low levels of another cannabis compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in marijuana. Evidence suggests that THC, not CBD, causes the symptoms that people associate with increased marijuana, Blessing says. Unlike marijuana, which the CDC argues is addictive, CBD does not appear to be addictive, according to the World Health Organization.
What is CBD Oil?
In theory, CBD oil should consist of two main ingredients: the cannabidiol compound dissolved in an oil made from hemp or coconut seeds.
However, all CBD products on the market (except Epidiolex) are almost completely unregulated. Products may not contain the amount of CBD that is advertised, and may even contain unwanted ingredients, such as THC, Haney says.
Patients who take CBD without knowing what they are getting “just throw away their money,” Haney says.
“It’s unfortunate that there aren’t many options for consumers to ensure that the CBD they buy is safe, or even that they have CBD,” says Blessing.
Does CBD oil have health benefits?
Companies that market CBD oil make a wide variety of claims about it. However, scientists and doctors stress that research on CBD is limited and has slowed in the United States due to federal restrictions.
Scientists say there is a growing body of evidence that CBD can treat other diseases in addition to seizures, but stress that scientific research is in its early stages.
CBD is in early clinical trials to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia, says Blessing, who is currently studying whether CBD could be used to treat PTSD in people with alcohol use disorder.
Blessing says CBD is very promising and frustrating because the federal government makes it so difficult for scientists to obtain different strains of CBD. “It’s my opinion that the government should step up, so that we can do clinical trials and get it to the people,” Blessing says.
Blessing says he first became interested in CBD because he saw it being used in early trials to treat people with psychosis. She explains that, unlike FDA-approved antipsychotic medications, which can cause weight gain and other side effects, CBD does not appear to have any major side effects.
Other evidence suggests that CBD could also be used to treat anxiety, but it has only been tested in animals and in very early clinical trials with humans.
Haney says he believes CBD is promising to help treat the cognitive symptoms associated with HIV and Alzheimer’s, and to treat neuropathic pain (pain from damage to the nervous system, which can be caused by diabetes, chemotherapy, or HIV). . Research is ongoing in all of these areas.
However, Haney stresses that not much is known about CBD yet, including the effects of long-term use, how it acts on the brain or its impact on brain development.
Why do people use CBD products?
Scientists are investigating a wide range of uses of CBD. However, Haney and Blessing say that with the exception of the drug Epidiolex, there has only been a limited amount of research suggesting that CBD can be used to treat other diseases.
While most scientists agree that much more research is needed before CBD can be prescribed to patients, for some people who sell CBD, personal experience and word of mouth are enough to convince them that it is effective.
Lisa Richards, of Denver, Colorado, has been a longtime yoga teacher and co-founder of L’eela CBD Body Care, which sells CBD capsules and serums. Richards says her own experience with CBD has convinced her it is effective.
“I’m a believer, obviously. I can say, absolutely, for myself that this works,” Richards says. “I have arthritis in my knee. If I don’t take CBD, I’ll feel like I’ll be back in a day or two.”
Richards says he prefers to use products in which he can actually identify the ingredients.
“In my opinion, the simpler the better. If I can’t pronounce it, if I can’t say what it is, I stay away,” Richards says.
Haney, however, warns consumers to be careful with personal testimonials and anecdotes offered by companies. “It’s important to be aware of the huge placebo effect,” Haney says. The claims made by the sellers “are not based on science.”
Is CBD legal?
CBD is in a legal gray area. CBD extracted from hemp (which must have an extremely low level of THC) has only been legal nationwide since the Agriculture Improvement Act, better known as the Farm Act, was passed, in December 2018..
CBD extracted from other cannabis plants is still illegal at the federal level, but may be legal under state law.
However, companies can have problems when they make false claims about the health benefits of CBD or when they add CBD to food.
In recent months, both cities and states have moved to control how CBD is sold. Maine and New York City have moved to suppress edible products that contain CBD. The New York Department of Health confirmed this in New York Time which has begun asking restaurants to stop selling foods with CBD because it has not been “considered safe as a food additive”.
Companies also cannot make unproven health claims about CBD legally.
Blessing says he is concerned that some people who buy unregulated CBD have a “real medical need” and are not looking for proven treatment methods.
“They could be carried by people who market unregulated forms of CBD and don’t get the treatment they need,” Blessing said.
What are the risks of using CBD oil?
Current evidence suggests that the active ingredient in CBD oil is safe, Blessing says, although it could have serious interactions if taken with other medications.
Haney says more research is needed to determine if there are long-term effects or if it affects brain development.
“There is nothing condemned; we really don’t know, ”Haney says.
However, Blessing and Haney point out that products sold as CBD are almost completely unregulated. Some products may even contain THC, which can interfere with medications and cause users who don’t want it to increase.
Should you try CBD?
Although Blessing and Haney say CBD is very promising, they agree that CBD products on the market (except for the drug Epidiolex) are suspicious.
Blessing says anyone considering trying unregulated CBD should talk to a doctor about it and be as well informed as possible.
“Take the time to get the best information possible. It’s a complex issue. Details really matter,” Blessing said.
Blessing points out that there are many factors that can affect the effects of CBD. Too little CBD may have no effect. In addition, the way it is administered – as a cream, oil, pill or eyelash under the tongue – could weaken its effects.
CBD products available for oral use (in addition to Epidiolex) tend to have poor “bioavailability,” Blessing says, “so only a small fraction of the CBD that is swallowed reaches the bloodstream.”
Haney warns that people should approach companies that sell CBD with skepticism.
“Because it’s not regulated, no one is really checking what it contains,” Haney says. “There is no CBD source I can recommend.”
More stories to read from TIME