What does the science say about CBD?

26 Aug 2019

Research into the effects of CBD oil has been hampered by strict regulation, but a growing number of consumers swear by its efficacy for a wide range of issues including relief from pain, anxiety, insomnia and depression.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-hallucinogenic component of the cannabis plant, the second most prevalent after its psychoactive counterpart THC. While CBD is found in medical marijuana, most CBD oil for food and drink use is sourced from the hemp plant, a close relation of marijuana. According to a World Health Organization report, CBD has a good safety profile and to date there is no evidence of any public health related problems associated with its use.

What does the science say about CBD?
Research has yet to catch up with consumer interest in CBD

Evidence of safety is one thing, but evidence of efficacy is something else entirely. While CBD has been touted for many health benefits, the strongest evidence so far is as a treatment for certain childhood epilepsy syndromes, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a cannabis-derived drug for this use, Epidiolex, which contains CBD. Apart from this, more research is needed to prove the specific effects of CBD, although a recent study suggested it might be useful for alleviating insomnia and anxiety in some people.

The small study, published in The Permanente Journal, looked at how it affected just 103 patients, and had variable results. Evidence for its purported pain relief effects is even scarcer, although some researchers suggest that studies in animals look promising.

It is possible – perhaps probable – that researchers will not be able to prove that CBD provides all the benefits that industry currently promises. But it is also possible that the current body of research does not tell the full story. Research into the effects of CBD is in its infancy, partly because governments have regulated it as an illegal drug. In the United States, for instance, many of the studies that form the basis for the country’s burgeoning CBD market were conducted in other countries, but the FDA relaxed regulations in December 2015, meaning it is now easier for researchers to conduct CBD trials.

Those providing CBD as an ingredient to the food and beverage industry are not all small players or start-ups. Sustainable ingredient specialist Amyris, for example, signed a commercialisation partnership for cannabinoids with a confidential partner in early 2019 in a deal reportedly worth up to $255 million. And while market entry tends to be slower for big brand manufacturers, Heineken-owned Lagunitas Brewing has developed an IPA brewed with cannabis terpenes, Coca-Cola has discussed making cannabis-infused beverages with Canadian supplier Aurora Cannabis, and AB InBev has announced a $100 million investment in cannabis-infused non-alcoholic beverages in partnership with grower and distributor Tilray.

While it may seem unlikely that any compound could be efficacious for treating the many conditions for which CBD is marketed, there are some common pathways to seemingly disparate health outcomes. Inflammation and oxidative stress, for instance, occur in both heart disease and schizophrenia. Only time – and further research – will tell if CBD can live up to industry’s many promises. For now, scientific interest continues to rise, and strong consumer interest looks set to sustain the high CBD oil currently enjoys, even while the science lags behind.

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