CBD products are everywhere. But do they work?
By now, you’ve probably run into a product containing cannabidiol, also known as CBD. It’s in everything from drinks and pet products to lotions and chewable gummies. Even major drugstore chains have announced they will start carrying CBD products in certain states.
But many people still don’t really know what CBD is. Is it marijuana? Is it legal? Does it actually work? Is it safe?
The answers to those questions aren’t necessarily straightforward. The only thing that is clear at this point: The marketing has gone way ahead of the science and the law when it comes to CBD products.
That said, CBD is thought to be a safe and effective option for certain conditions. Below, we sort through the confusion by answering some of the most common questions about CBD.
Is CBD marijuana?
Yes and no. Cannabidiol is one of the two best-known active compounds derived from the marijuana plant. The other is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the substance that that produces the “high” from marijuana.
CBD does not get you high, but the idea that it’s not psychoactive is something of a misconception in his opinion. It does change your consciousness. You may feel mellow, experience less pain, and be more comfortable. In addition, some CBD products do contain small amounts of THC.
While CBD can come from marijuana, it can also be derived from hemp. Hemp is a related plant with 0.3% or less of THC. This plant is often used to make fabrics and ropes. As of 2018, Congress made hemp legal in all 50 states, and consequently CBD derived from hemp is also legal. The rules around marijuana-derived CBD, however, are far less clear.
Is marijuana-derived CBD legal?
Again, yes and no, depending on where you live. In some states marijuana is legal for both recreational use and medical use. In other states, it’s legal only for medical use. And in some areas, it’s not legal at all.
When it comes to CBD products, the FDA is still trying to get its arms around the issue. The agency is just starting the process of hashing out some rules regarding CBD sales. Officials recently formed a working group to create guidelines that could allow companies to legally market CBD products. Currently, CBD products are considered supplements, which aren’t FDA-regulated, and it is illegal for companies to make health or therapeutic claims about the products in their marketing. In announcing its effort to set CBD marketing rules, the FDA also signaled that it is cracking down on CBD companies that are using “egregious and unfounded claims” to market their products to “vulnerable populations.”
Currently, there is only one CBD product that has FDA approval: a prescription medication called Epidiolex, used to treat some rare severe seizure disorders in children. The bottom line is that in order to understand whether CBD is legal where you live, you’ll need to consult your state health department website or professionals in your community.
Does CBD work?
Yes, there is evidence that CBD works for some conditions, but certainly not all the conditions it is being promoted for these days. There’s no evidence, for example, that CBD cures cancer. There is moderate evidence that CBD can improve sleep disorders, fibromyalgia pain, muscle spasticity related to multiple sclerosis, and anxiety.
People report that oral CBD helps relieve anxiety and pain and also leads to better sleep. However, the same may not be true for a host of other CBD products on the market today, in particular those that are rubbed on the skin. It’s hard to know whether these have any clinical benefit, because they haven’t been tested sufficiently.
Testing also shows that many products don’t contain what’s claimed on the label. For example, they may have less CBD than advertised. So, buyer beware.
Where should you purchase CBD products?
If you are interested in trying a CBD product, it’s best to seek one through a dispensary, which is an establishment legally licensed to sell marijuana, if they are available in your state. Dispensary products must be labeled so you can see exactly how much CBD is in the product and whether it also contains THC. A small amount of THC in a CBD product isn’t typically problematic. But larger amounts could cause a “high” and may present a risk if you are going to drive.
Also, keep in mind that CBD products aren’t standardized and will vary. It helps to keep a journal recording what type of CBD product you took, how much, and your response to it. This will help you track what works and what doesn’t for your condition.
Is CBD safe?
The safest way to take CBD is orally, as a tablet, chewable, or tincture (a concentrated liquid typically administered with a dropper). Steer clear of any illegally sold synthetic CBD products, sometimes called “spice” or “bath salts.” These products have induced psychotic reactions in some people and pose a major health risk.
For adults, CBD appears to be a very safe product. CBD does produce side effects for some people, including nausea, fatigue, and irritability. It may also interact with certain medications, so always check with your doctor before use.
But for children under age 21 it’s a different story. It’s also not clear if any amount of CBD is appropriate for children.
Evidence regarding CBD is still building. Now that some states have legalized recreational and medical use of marijuana products, including CBD, scientists are finding it easier to conduct research. More will be known in the next 5 to 10 years, including whether there are yet undiscovered problems associated with long-term use.
Image: Vanessa Numes/Getty Images
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
What Is CBD Oil?
This cannabis extract may help treat nerve pain, anxiety, and epilepsy
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman’s World, and Natural Health.
Verywell Health articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and healthcare professionals. These medical reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Meredith Bull, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor with a private practice in Los Angeles, California.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil is an extract from hemp plants called Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa . You might be more familiar with cannabis plants because they are grown for marijuana. However, CBD is not the same thing as marijuana.
CBD oil contains CBD that’s mixed with a base (carrier) oil, like coconut oil or hemp seed oil. These are called tinctures. You can get tinctures in different concentrations. The oil can also be put into capsules, gummies, and sprays.
People who support using CBD oil say that it can treat pain and anxiety; can help stimulate appetite and may help manage some types of seizures.
This article goes over what CBD is used for, the possible side effects, and what you should look for if you choose to buy CBD.
CBD vs. Marijuana
CBD is one component (called a cannabinoid ) that’s found in a hemp plant. Marijuana is a separate plant but it’s from the same species that hemp belongs to. Marijuana has CBD and hundreds of other compounds in it.
The main difference between hemp plants and marijuana plants is how much of a compound called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is in them. Hemp is grown to have less than 0.3% THC, while marijuana has more.
THC is what’s responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis—in other words, it’s what makes you feel “high.”
CBD oil generally does not have THC in it; however, a very small (trace) amount might be in products sold in certain states.
What Is CBD Oil Used For?
We’re not sure exactly how CBD works. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t have a strong connection with the molecules in the brain that THC binds to create psychoactive effects. These are called cannabinoid receptors.
Instead, CBD works on other receptors, like the opioid receptors that help control pain. It also affects glycine receptors that control a brain chemical called serotonin which helps control your mood.
People that support the use of CBD claim that CBD oil can treat a variety of health problems, including:
- Chronic pain
- Drug use and withdrawal
- High blood pressure
- Muscle spasms
- Poor appetite
As CBD has gained popularity, researchers have been trying to study it more. Still, there has not been a lot of clinical research to look for evidence in support of these health claims.
CBD is not a safe option for everyone. Talk to your healthcare provider if you want to try it for managing a health condition.
A 2015 review of research that was published in the journal Neurotherapeutics suggested that CBD might help treat anxiety disorders.
The study authors reported that CBD had previously shown powerful anxiety-relieving effects in animal research—and the results were kind of surprising.
In most of the studies, lower doses of CBD (10 milligrams per kilogram, mg/kg, or less) improved some symptoms of anxiety, while higher doses (100 mg/kg or more) had almost no effect.
The way that CBD acts in the brain could explain why this happens. In low doses, CBD might act the same as the surrounding molecules that normally bind to the receptor that “turns up” their signaling.
However, at higher doses, too much activity at this receptor site could produce the opposite effect.
There have not been many trials to look at CBD’s anxiety-relieving effects in humans. However, one was a 2019 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry.
For the study, 57 men took either CBD oil or a sugar pill with no CBD in it (placebo) before a public-speaking event.
The researchers assessed the participants’ anxiety levels using measures like blood pressure and heart rate. The researchers also used a reliable test for mood states called the Visual Analog Mood Scale (VAMS).
The men who took 300 mg of CBD oil reported less anxiety than the men who were given a placebo; however, the men who took 100 mg or 600 mg of CBD oil did not experience the same effects.
CBD oil might help people with substance use disorder, according to a 2015 review published in the journal Substance Abuse.
The review looked at the findings from 14 published studies. Nine of the studies looked at the effects of CBD on animals, and five studies looked at the effects on humans.
The researchers reported that CBD showed promise for treating people with opioid, cocaine, or psychostimulant use disorders.
However, the effects of CBD were quite different depending on the substance. For example, CBD without THC did not decrease withdrawal symptoms related to opioid use.
On the other hand, it did reduce drug-seeking behaviors in people using cocaine, methamphetamine, and other similar drugs.
Some experts suggest that CBD could help treat cannabis and nicotine dependence, but more research is needed to provide this theory.
High Blood Pressure
A 2017 study found that CBD oil may reduce the risk of heart disease because it can lower high blood pressure in some people.
For the study, nine healthy men took either 600 mg of CBD or the same dose of a placebo. The men who took CBD had lower blood pressure before and after experiencing stressors like exercise or extreme cold.
The study also looked at the amount of blood remaining in the heart after a heartbeat (stroke volume).
The stroke volume in the men who took CBD was lower than in was in the placebo group, meaning their hearts were pumping more efficiently.
The study suggested that CBD oil could be a complementary therapy for people with high blood pressure that is affected by stress and anxiety.
However, there is no evidence that CBD oil can treat high blood pressure on its own or prevent it in people at risk. While stress can complicate high blood pressure, it does not cause it.
In June 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a CBD oral solution called Epidiolex.
Epidiolex is used to treat two rare forms of epilepsy in children under the age of 2: Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. These are very rare genetic disorders that cause lifelong seizures starting in the first year of life.
Other than for these two disorders, CBD’s effectiveness for treating seizures is not known. Even with Epidiolex, it’s not clear if the anti-seizure effects are from CBD or another factor.
However, there is some evidence that CBD interacts with seizure medicines like Onfi (clobazam) and raises their concentration in the blood. That said, more research is needed to understand the link.
Possible Side Effects
Clinical research has shown that CBD oil can cause side effects. The specific side effects a person has and how bad they are varies from one person to the next and from one type of CBD to another.
Some common side effects people report from using CBD include:
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in mood
- Dry mouth
CBD oil may also increase liver enzymes, which is a marker of liver inflammation.
People with liver disease should talk to their healthcare provider before taking CBD oil. They may need to have their liver enzymes checked regularly if they are using CBD.
Can You Use CBD If You’re Pregnant?
You should not use CBD oil if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Even though the effects of CBD are not fully understood, it does pass through the placenta.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) further states that pregnant people should not use marijuana because of the potential risks to a developing fetus.
Do not drive or use heavy machinery when taking CBD oil—especially when you first start using it or switch to a new brand. Remember that some products do contain THC, even in small amounts.
CBD oil can interact with medications, including many that are used to treat epilepsy. One of the reasons for this has to do with how your body breaks down (metabolizes) drugs.
Cytochrome P450 (CYP450) is an enzyme your body uses to break down some drugs. CBD oil can block CYP450. That means that taking CBD oil with these drugs could make them have a stronger effect than you need or make them not work at all.
Drugs that could potentially interact with CBD include:
- Anti-arrhythmia drugs like quinidine
- Anticonvulsants like Tegretol (carbamazepine) and Trileptal (oxcarbazepine)
- Antifungal drugs like Nizoral (ketoconazole) and Vfend (voriconazole)
- Antipsychotic drugs like Orap (pimozide)
- Atypical antidepressants like Remeron (mirtazapine)
- Benzodiazepine sedatives like Klonopin (clonazepam) and Halcion (triazolam)
- Immune-suppressive drugs like Sandimmune (cyclosporine)
- Macrolide antibiotics like clarithromycin and telithromycin
- Migraine medicine like Ergomar (ergotamine)
- Opioid painkillers like Duragesic (fentanyl) and alfentanil
- Rifampin-based drugs used to treat tuberculosis
Always tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all the medicines you take, including prescription, over-the-counter (OTC), herbal, or recreational drugs.
The interactions between these medications and CBD are often mild and you might not have to change your treatment.
However, in some cases, you might have to change medications or space out your doses to avoid a reaction. That said, never change or stop medication without talking to your provider.
Dosage and Preparation
There are no guidelines for using CBD oil. Each product works a bit differently, depending on the form.
For example, putting the oil under your tongue can produce effects more quickly than swallowing a capsule that needs to be digested.
Here are a few ways that you can take CBD oil:
- Placing one or more drops under your tongue and holding it there for 30 to 60 seconds without swallowing. You can also use a spray that is spritz in your mouth/under your tongue.
- Taking a capsule or chewing a gummy
There’s no “correct” dose of CBD oil. How much you take and the form you choose will depend on your needs and what you hope to get for effects. The average dose range is from 5 mg to 25 mg.
Most oils come in 30-milliliter (mL) bottles and include a dropper cap to help you measure.
That said, it’s hard to figure out the exact amount of CBD per milliliter of oil. Some tinctures have concentrations of 1,500 mg per 30 mL, while others have 3,000 mg per mL or more.
How to Calculate CBD Dose
To determine an exact dose of CBD, remember that each drop of oil equals 0.05 mL of fluid. This means that a 30-mL bottle of CBD oil will have about 600 drops in it.
If the concentration of the tincture is 1,500 mg per mL, one drop would have 2.5 mg of CBD in it. The math to figure that out looks like this: 1,500 mg ÷ 600 drops = 2.5 mg
What to Look For
CBD oil comes in different forms: isolates, broad-spectrum, and full-spectrum.
- Isolates contain only CBD
- Broad-spectrum oils nearly all of the components of the plan (e.g., proteins, flavonoids, terpenes, and chlorophyll), but does not have THC oils have all the compounds including THC (up to 0.3%)
Alternative medicine practitioners believe that the compounds provide more health benefits, but the is a lack of evidence to support these claims.
Remember that CBD oils are unregulated. There’s no guarantee that a product is what it claims to be on its packaging. You also can’t know for sure that it’s safe and effective.
A 2017 study reported that only 31% of CBD products sold online were correctly labeled. Most had less CBD in them than was advertised, and 21% had significant amounts of THC.
If you are interested in buying CBD products, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Buy American: Domestically produced CBD oil might be a safer option than those that have been imported.
- Go organic: Brands certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are less likely to expose you to pesticides and other harmful chemicals.
- Read the product label: Even if you choose a full-spectrum oil, don’t assume that every ingredient on the product label is natural. CBD products can also have preservatives, flavorings, or thinning agents in them. If you don’t recognize an ingredient, ask the dispenser what it is or check online.
Hemp plants can be grown for different purposes. Some species are made for marijuana but others are used to make CBD products.
Unlike marijuana, CBD oil does not “get you high.” Instead, it may help relieve stress, anxiety, drug withdrawals, and nerve pain.
While there are many claims about the health benefits of using CBD oil, the evidence is lacking. A lot of studies were done with animals, not humans.
If you want to try CBD oil, you should learn about the different dosages and preparations first.
You should also know that the products are not regulated, which means you can’t know for sure that a product will work and be safe.
Before you use CBD oil, talk to your provider. If you take certain medications or have a health condition, you may not be able to use these products.
Frequently Asked Questions
It would be hard to overdose on CBD oil. Research has shown that human tolerance for CBD is very high. One study reported the toxic dose would be about 20,000 mg taken at one time.
It depends on where you live, the type of product, how it was sourced (e.g., is it from hemp or marijuana), and its intended purpose (medical or recreational). In many states, you must be 18 or 21 to buy CBD oil. Check your state’s laws.
Not necessarily. While the names are sometimes used interchangeably, hemp oil can also refer to hemp seed oil, which is used for cooking, food production, and skincare products.
CBD oil is made from the leaves, stems, buds, and flowers of the Cannabis indica or Cannabis sativa plant. It should contain less than 0.3% THC.
Hemp oil is made from the seeds of Cannabis sativa and does not have TCH in it.