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What Research Says About CBD Oil

Promising, But Not Yet Proven

CBD oil, which stands for cannabidiol, is having a moment. And while it’s becoming increasingly popular, what do we really know about CBD oil? The truth: not much.

Hemp, Marijuana and CBD

CBD oil is the second most prevalent active ingredient of cannabis, or marijuana. However, the CBD oil sold in stores is derived directly from the hemp plant, a cousin of the marijuana plant. Although there is not much hereditary difference between cannabis and hemp, the plants’ flowers and leaves contain different amounts of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabinoid responsible for getting “high.” Though research has shown some traces of THC in certain CBD oils, most do not contain any THC.

While also derived from the hemp plant, hemp oil is different from CBD oil. “There is a specific difference between CBD oil and hemp oil,” explains Integrative Medicine Specialist Melinda R. Ring, MD, executive director of Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. “Hemp oil comes from the seeds and contains very little CBD oil. Meanwhile, CBD oil or extract has a variable amount extracted from the flowers or seeds.” For that reason, she strongly suggests reading labels carefully.

Uses for CBD Oil

“The benefits include a couple very rare types of seizures,” says Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President of Northwestern Medicine James G. Adams, MD. “But the misconception is that it’s broadly beneficial. It’s not that well researched or understood.”

To date, the most significant research supports the use of CBD oil for those who experience seizures. Epidiolex, a CBD oral solution, was approved by the FDA in 2018 to treat people with one of two rare forms of epilepsy — Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. Scientists believe CBD oil helps suppress seizures by slowing down messages being sent to the brain, changing calcium levels in brain cells and decreasing inflammation in the brain.

Animal studies have indicated some other potential uses for CBD oil. Research shows that dogs using CBD oil for osteoarthritis were more active and had less pain. This suggests there could be a human application for pain and inflammation treatment. “There are some possibilities suggested here,” says Dr. Ring. However, the jury is still out. More data is needed, as some research has shown mixed results.

Other applications include managing anxiety, PTSD and cancer side effects.

An Answer to the Opioid Epidemic?

Due to its inhibitory effect, CBD oil may help manage triggers for cravings and anxiety in people who use heroin. “From a research perspective, there’s interesting data that needs to be confirmed,” says Dr. Ring.

Some research has found that men and women using CBD oil experienced reduced cravings in drug-abstinent individuals. In a short-term study, 42 patients taking CBD oil reported reduced cravings for up to one week after their dose of CBD.

Dr. Ring says the findings are significant, suggesting that CBD oil could be a powerful tool in helping individuals seeking help for addiction.

Bottom Line

There is still much to be understood about CBD oil, and Dr. Ring continues to seek additional answers. She recently conducted an initial study on CBD oil. “I think at this point, both professionals and patients don’t know what product to use or how often,” she explains. “I think having answers to those questions can help.”

Dr. Adams adds, “CBD is probably not that harmful, but we shouldn’t expect it to be a medicine. It’s being promoted for all kinds of purposes for which it’s never been studied.”

It’s important to talk to your medical provider before beginning to use CBD oil, because it can interact with other medications you may be taking. Dr. Ring also advises looking at labels carefully and buying quality products. The lack of regulation means anything online can be easily compromised, and quality can vary widely. She suggests that you “read the reviews to ensure it has been tested, the ingredients are verified and there aren’t any contaminants.”

Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Medicine