Is cannabidiol (CBD oil) worth the hype?

With the ongoing legal and political battles over marijuana legalization, you’ve heard about a compound called cannabidiol, or CBD. 

It’s a cannabinoid, meaning that it’s one of the dozens of bio-active chemicals found in cannabis.  The most famous cannabinoid, of course, is THC—it’s this cannabinoid which is responsible for the “high” associated with smoking marijuana.  Cannabidiol, on the other hand, does not create a psychoactive high – it’s of interest mostly for medical applications

Cannabidiol is most easily used in a liquid form.  Since it’s not soluble in water, it is dissolved in a vegetable oil (often olive oil) and referred to as CBD oil.  Its intriguing biological properties have attracted attention from scientists and medical researchers studying a number of health problems.

In June of 2015, Nora D. Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse gave a presentation to the United States Senate Drug Caucus (1). 

The caucus had called a hearing to inquire on the potential medical uses for cannabidiol, which remains difficult or illegal to obtain and use (depending on the oil’s source) in many states.  In it, she described the state of the scientific research behind the use of cannabidiol oil for a wide range of health problems.

CBD oil for epilepsy

Some fascinating evidence exists suggesting that CBD oil is effective as an adjunctive treatment in children with epilepsy that was not well-controlled by medication.  Volkow cites a number of small studies and clinical reports which found that cannabidiol oil reduced the frequency of seizures.  A 2012 review by Gloss and Vickrey at the University of California’s Department of Neurology examined the limited number of studies available to date, noting that there were some promising results, but concluding that the studies were too small and too limited to draw any strong conclusions (2). 

There was, however, good evidence that there were no major adverse effects (side effects) from the cannabidiol oil treatment protocols used.

CBD oil’s brain-protecting and cancer-fighting effects

CBD oil also appears to have the ability to reduce inflammation and protect the brain from degenerative damage in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.  So far, the research has been mostly confined to the Petri dish and the microscope.  Volkow cites one small study that found some improvement in quality of life in patients with Parkinson’s disease.  However, beyond this, no major studies have tested cannabidiol oil as a drug for preventing or slowing the progression of any neurological diseases. 

Similarly promising results have been found in cell cultures of cancerous cells.  Cannabidiol appears to have anti-tumor properties.  Volkow notes that there are a number of clinical trials underway: within a few years, there should be some good research on whether CBD oil can reduce tumor size or slow the progression of cancer.

CBD oil for schizophrenia

Human trials are a little more advanced when it comes to using CBD oil to treat psychological problems.  A 2012 study by a team of nine researchers in Germany, Italy, and the United States investigated the effects of cannabidiol on brain activity in patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia (3). 

The researchers compared cannabidiol to a common anti-psychotic drug called amisulpride.  While both drugs were similarly effective at reducing the severity of symptoms, cannabidiol had far fewer side effects. 

Further, analysis of blood samples revealed that patients who received cannabidiol had heightened levels of a particular neurotransmitter, and levels of this neurotransmitter in the blood were strongly and independently related to having fewer symptoms of schizophrenia.  This indicates that CBD oil could one day become a reliable treatment for schizophrenia that has fewer side effects and uses a different biological mechanism to treat the problem.

CBD oil for anxiety

The neurological effects of cannabidiol might be useful for treating anxiety, too.  A 2011 study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology examined whether cannabidiol could reduce anxiety and nerves in people with social anxiety disorder who were assigned a simulated public-speaking test (4). 

Half the volunteers were given a single dose of CBD, while the other half were given a placebo.  All of the study’s subjects were then instructed to prepare and give a short speech about their city. 

To increase anxiety, the subjects were told the speech would be videotaped and later analyzed by a psychologist.  Compared to the subjects who received the placebo, the subjects who were given cannabidiol had lower levels of self-assessed anxiety, less cognitive impairment, and were more alert.  Their overall performance in the speech was nearly as good as that of healthy controls who didn’t have social anxiety disorder!

Safety

So far, cannabidiol appears to be quite safe.  A 2011 study published in the journal Current Drug Safety concluded that CBD oil use, even at fairly high doses, does not appear to be associated with any major side effects (5).  However, the authors caution that more research is needed, along with studies that follow subjects for longer periods of time. 

Could cannabidiol oil become a mainstream treatment?

Volkow’s presentation proposes that many of the positive effects of cannabidiol are the result of its ability to modulate levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.  This would explain why it appears to be a potent treatment for such a wide range of maladies. 

Despite the fact that much of the research is at a very early stage, CBD oil shows a lot of promise in treating many chronic health conditions, including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders. 

Volkow’s presentation mentions a number of other emerging prospects for the compound, too: cannabidiol may work in concert with THC to reduce pain levels in people with neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer pain; it may also help reduce pain and spasms in multiple sclerosis too. 

Takeaway: With marijuana legalization in many states opening the door for more research into medical uses of compounds found in the marijuana plant, including cannabidiol, you’re sure to hear a lot about it in the future.  If larger, more carefully-designed studies continue to find the same positive effects of CBD oil, it’s sure to make its way into the medical establishment as a mainstream treatment for a wide range of problems.

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