Does CBD Oil Really Work? A Doctor Weighs In

CBD oil has been touted as a cure-all for everything from anxiety to depression, but experts say more human research is needed to back up the claims

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CBD is everywhere these days, with celebrities like Kristen Bell touting its anti-inflammatory benefits, Tamra Judge selling a supplement line for healthy functioning and Michael J. Fox using it to alleviate medical conditions.

So is there any truth to the hype?

“It’s an extremely promising compound and there are a lot of studies that show its potential,” says Dr. Kevin Hill, addiction psychiatrist and Director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “But while pre-clinical or animal studies show CBD may have anti-anxiety properties and may be antipsychotic, for the majority of uses, there is not a lot of evidence.”

Short for cannabidiol, CBD is a non-intoxicating chemical in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD does not make you high. But CBD is gaining a reputation as as a magical elixir to treat everything from anxiety to depression, inflammation to acne. Some researchers are even looking into whether it could be used as an adjunct treatment for opioid addiction.

So far, though, the FDA has only approved a version of CBD for two pediatric epilepsy conditions, making the CBD market a “wild, wild west,” according to Hill. The lack of regulation means most of the CBD purchased online is not approved. “You’re not really sure what you’re getting,” he says, adding that a recent study showed only about 30 percent of commercial CBD products are accurately labeled.

That can be problematic when so many people are taking it. “While the compound itself appears to be relatively safe, we need to know more,” he says. “It’s not a great scenario to have millions of people using cannabidiol when we don’t have the level of evidence that we need about its long-term effects or interaction with other medications.”

That’s why — if you do decide to experiment with CBD — it’s imperative that you tell your doctor. “It’s better to do it under some supervision than none,” says Hill. “If you are taking CBD and are on five other medications, I need to know that.”

Another tip: Buy it in a state where recreational or medical cannabis is legal. Theoretically the products in a brick-and-mortar store should be tested in laboratories, says Hill, allowing you to feel more confident about your purchase than than if you were to buy it online.

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Still, it’s important to proceed cautiously until more randomized controlled trials are underway. The rate and scale of research has not kept pace with the interest, says Hill, who believes there is little motivation to invest in studies because people are buying the products regardless.

But the lack of knowledge surrounding CBD — even among the medical community — can lead to misinformation and misuse. Take the claim that CBD oil can ease pain. “If you rub it on your skin, topical CBD is not going to be absorbed in the bloodstream,” says Hill. “It’s going to treat local inflammation as much as products like Bengay or Icy Hot — but will be much more expensive. People are being taken advantage of, and that concerns me.”

Ultimately the onus is on the patient, the public and health care providers to become more educated about CBD. “People are using CBD already, and it’s just going to increase,” he says. “The interest is not going to go away.”

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