Pear in mind: A blog in the public interest

CBD—or cannabidiol—a compound found in cannabis plants like marijuana and hemp—is added to everything from dietary supplements to food, drinks, pet food, cosmetics, and more. One of CBD’s appeals for many people is that it doesn’t provide the characteristic psychoactive “high” associated with marijuana, which comes thanks to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. 

In 2018, FDA approved the high-dose CBD drug, Epidiolex, for the treatment of seizures in two rare, severe forms of Epilepsy. And while CBD is often touted for helping with anxiety, insomnia, pain, depression, and more, there’s not enough evidence to support those claims.  

What’s more, despite its widespread use in supplements and foods, CBD has not been approved and is expressly prohibited by the FDA for those uses. Just because you see a product with CBD on a shelf doesn’t mean that a government agency approved its being there. 

We recently reviewed and published our safety rating of CBD in Chemical Cuisine. CBD earned itself a “Caution” rating, meaning that it may pose a risk and needs to be better tested. That’s because the safety of CBD is not well studied or understood. Studies using Epidiolex reported some potential risk of liver injury, interactions with other drugs, diarrhea, drowsiness, and changes in mood. That said, a typical Epidiolex dose for an adult is 700 milligrams a day, though the exact dose depends on body weight. Most food and supplement products are labeled to contain less than 20 mg. 

It’s not clear what the risks are for lower doses of CBD, nor do we know how cumulative exposure to CBD across a range of products might impact people, especially children, the elderly, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. The research just hasn’t been done, though we do know that CBD (like THC) can be present in breast milk, and that CBD has caused adverse effects during pregnancy and lactation in animals at relatively high doses. For those reasons, pregnant and nursing women should avoid CBD. 

Finally, don’t believe the dosage amounts written on the label of CBD products. In one study, only 30 percent of 84 CBD products that were purchased online actually contained the amount of CBD listed on the label—some had more, others had less. And some of the products tested positive for the psychoactive chemical, THC. 

Future studies will help us determine the safety (and efficacy) of CBD. For now, it’s best to avoid the trendy ingredient.  

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Caitlin Dow (she/her/hers) writes for CSPI's flagship publication, Nutrition Action, addressing the evidence on the latest health trends. Caitlin reviews the science related to nutrition, dietary supplements, exercise, sleep, sustainability, and more.