What Is CBD and Can It Really Help Your Anxiety?

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

In the world of health and wellness trends, these three letters are generating a ton of buzz: CBD.

No, CBD isn’t the name of a new fad diet or some hip workout regimen. It’s short for cannabidiol, one of more than 100 naturally occurring compounds found in marijuana and hemp.

But unlike the THC-laced joints and edibles that typically come to mind when you think of cannabis, CBD is not mind-altering, meaning it doesn’t give you the high you might get from weed.

Proponents say CBD can instead treat seizures that don't respond to traditional medications, and may help treat anxiety, pain and inflammation.

Think of it this way: If THC is the bad boy of marijuana, CBD is more like the wholesome cousin who brings you chicken noodle soup when you’re sick.

Nowadays, you can find a slew of CBD-infused wellness products everywhere from recreational pot shops to your neighborhood drugstore, hair salon or spa. There are CBD oils, lotions, bath bombs, coffees, candies and — believe it or not — pet treats.

It’s so trendy right now that even celebrities like squeaky-clean actress Mandy Moore have gone on the record to gush about the stuff.

All this hype has resulted in some major payoff. During 2018, the CBD industry grew by 80 percent in the United States and is now worth an estimated $591 million. That’s no small feat considering cannabis products, including CBD items, are still technically illegal on the federal level.

“I think when adult cannabis use was legalized in Washington in 2012, it opened a dialogue and curiosity about using a plant that was so vilified in the public,” explains Beatriz Carlini, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute and affiliate associate professor in the School of Public Health. “Coupled with an industry that is for-profit, and therefore very interested in mainstreaming cannabis, CBD was brought to people’s attention.”

CBD versus THC

Although using CBD for wellness purposes has grown exponentially as of late, many people still paint it with the same brush as marijuana.

That’s unfair, Carlini says, because CBD doesn’t have anything to do with the undesirable paranoia or increased anxiety you might get from the weed available in most Washington retail stores. In fact, the opposite is true.

“What CBD does is it helps to buffer the high that the THC component of the plant gives,” she explains. “This is a very important quality for those who need to consume THC for pain, inflammation or to control nausea — you can get your medicine without getting high.”

The reason that non-medical marijuana users get high and sometimes feel those negative effects is because most of the weed available to purchase has very little CBD in it.

“Throughout the years as cannabis is used more and more for its properties to alter our consciousness, the plant was genetically bred to minimize the CBD and increase the THC,” Carlini says. “The cannabis varieties that you find in the legal stores these days typically have a very low percentage of CBD and a very high percentage of THC. They are way, way stronger than they used to be.”

Are CBD benefits real?

Cannabis stigma aside, it’s easy to understand why some skeptics are quick to dismiss CBD’s purported benefits.

I mean, come on. Can rubbing a CBD ointment into your skin or swallowing a drop of CBD oil really help ease anxiety or relieve chronic pain?

In theory, yes, Carlini says — with the caveat that much more research needs to be done to say for sure.

Remember those more than 100 naturally occurring compounds that are found in marijuana? Turns out your body produces its own similar compounds called endocannabinoids, including CBD and THC equivalents.

That means you already have endocannabinoid receptor sites within your central nervous system that help regulate various physiological and cognitive functions, such as mood, pain sensation, appetite, memory and more.

“Both CBD and THC, when they go into our system, they bind with our natural endocannabinoid system,” Carlini explains. “This basically enhances what our bodies should produce. For people who might have a deficiency of these natural occurring endocannabinoids, this may help.”

One of the biggest issues with CBD products right now, Carlini says, is the lack of scientific data supporting the wellness claims and the lack of federal regulation. As is the case for the vitamins and supplements industry, CBD items exist in a buyer-beware market.

Some products contain much less CBD than the label states. In one review of CBD items available to purchase, only 30 percent of the products were actually labeled correctly.

“These products are all there to help us feel better, but they may work or they may not,” Carlini explains. “It’s the result of unregulated product lines. At this point in time, there is no requirement to test CBD for pesticides or contaminants before it goes to the market, which is a huge issue for anyone, particularly if you are ill. It’s important to do good research to be sure the manufacturer has ethical standards.”

The future of CBD

When labeled and used correctly, CBD can potentially treat various ailments, but more research is needed to truly understand how it can affect the body, its side effects and what medications it may interact with.

A huge hurdle for solid CBD research is the compound’s association with marijuana, which is classified as a top-level schedule 1 drug in the United States. As a result, cannabis studies have largely been restricted to research done on animals or in other countries, which may have different strains of cannabis and are not necessarily valid in the U.S.

Despite all this, some tentative steps forward are underway. In June 2018, the FDA approved a drug containing purified CBD to help treat seizures in children suffering from two severe epilepsy disorders.

Carlini says this may only be the beginning.

“Clinical trials and studies are happening right now that involve testing CBD for treatment of different ailments,” she notes. “You have trials around the globe to test if CBD helps with anxiety, psychosis, autism, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, alcohol use disorder, opioid use, cocaine and more. There is a huge amount of potential for CBD that we just don’t know yet.”