Words by Lydia Smith.
As of this month, medicinal cannabis products can now be legally prescribed to some patients in the UK, including to children with rare, severe forms of epilepsy.
While only specialist hospital doctors will be able to prescribe the products in a small number of cases, another form called CBD oil is readily available on the high street – and it’s gaining recognition for its beneficial impact on wellbeing.
CBD oil, also known as cannabidiol or cannabis oil, promises to provide relief from a number of medical problems from pain to depression and anxiety. So what exactly is it, and can it really help relieve stress?
CBD is a chemical compound known as a cannabinoid that can be found in the cannabis plant. It’s a naturally occurring substance which can be extracted and mixed with an oil – such as hemp oil derived from the seeds of the same plant – to create CBD oil. You can take it as drops you can put under the tongue, but can also be added to water, be used as a spray, taken as capsules or applied as a cream.
And while the cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC) is psychoactive, CBD is not. It’s legal in the UK as long as it contains no more than 0.2% THC.
“CBD provides health benefits without causing a ‘high’ and is not addictive,” says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan.
“Cannabidiol oil has direct effects on the endocannabinoid system in the brain, enhancing the effects of other brain chemicals, such as serotonin and anandamide, to reduce pain perception, relieve anxiety and stress, improve sleep and lift mood,” she explains. “CBD oil helps to promote general feelings of wellbeing, which often suffer in a world of hectic social and work schedules.”
Although it’s by no means a cure for stress, anxiety or depression, research has suggested it may help with the symptoms.
In 2011, a study found that when people with generalised social anxiety disorder were given 600mg of CBD oil before a public speaking test. The results showed those who took the oil experienced less anxiety, difficulty and discomfort during their speech, compared to those who took a placebo. Another 2016 study found CBD oil helped reduce anxiety and improve insomnia in a 10-year-old girl with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Christopher Smeaton, 33, who has a rare genetic condition called morquio syndrome, says he tried CBD oil for anxiety after going through a difficult time with health and work problems. The condition affects his joints, his bones and his mobility.
“It absolutely worked for me,” he says. “I bought some CBD oil skeptically after someone recommended it.
“I felt my sleep dipped back into a natural rhythm, and the little things didn’t seem like such huge obstacles anymore.”
CBD has also been touted as a supplementary treatment for a number of different health conditions. Multiple studies have examined the link between cannabidiol and pain relief, which is believed to be down to its ability to reduce inflammation and interact with neurotransmitters.
“Cannabidiol is also a popular treatment for insomnia, and promotes refreshing REM sleep to reduce excessive daytime sleepiness,” Dr Brewer says. “It is particularly helpful for sleep disorders in people with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.”
“One of the biggest motivators for taking CBD oil is for help with muscle and joint pain – problems that, if left untreated, can greatly affect your quality of life. CBD hemp extracts are antioxidant and have anti-inflammatory effects on joints, to help reduce pain and stiffness.”
Some cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs are already licensed for prescription in the UK, although only for specific uses. Sativex, which has been available in the UK since 2010, uses both CBD and THC to treat spasticity in multiple sclerosis, for example. This year, Epidiolex became the first cannabis-based medication to be approved in the US to treat rare forms of epilepsy.
It’s important to note, though, that there’s a big difference between the high doses of CBD used in pharmaceutical drugs and the dietary supplements available in shops.
Still, it’s clear there is a huge market for CBD – which is being sold in a range of products, from skincare to craft beers. Even drinks giant Coca Cola is considering introducing beverages infused with the substance to help ease problems such as inflammation, pain and cramps.
According to the cannabis/legal marijuana market analysts firm Hemp Business Journal, the market for CBD is estimated to grow to $2.1 billion by 2020 – a huge jump from $202 million in 2017.
So, are there any drawbacks? While some research suggests it can help support health and wellbeing, larger, more long-term studies are needed. In 2017, a review of studies found that “some important toxicological parameters are yet to be studied”, such as whether CBD has an impact on hormones.
Experts also don’t recommend that cannabidiol should be used instead of conventional medication. And although most CBD oil users don’t experience negative effects, any treatments – natural or not – can carry side effects, such as nausea and digestive problems.
“If you are taking any prescribed medication, always check with your doctor before starting CBD as interactions can occur which could affect the absorption and effectiveness of your medicine,” Dr Brewer warns.
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