You know that the cannabis-based compound might help you beat anxiety, reduce pain, and get better sleep, among other promises. But there’s more to know about this seemingly ubiquitous remedy, including what’s legal and what isn’t—and whether science backs it up.

By Melanie Mannarino
August 24, 2020
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In 2018, the FDA declared that hemp, the plant from which CBD is derived, was no longer an illegal substance. (Cannabis containing more THC than hemp—meaning above 0.3 percent—is still federally illegal.) This newly legal status is why you can find CBD products of all types in brick-and-mortar stores and online. That same year, the agency approved the CBD-based drug Epidiolex for the treatment of two severe forms of epilepsy.

The FDA has issued strict guidelines regulating CBD, and last November, the agency warned 15 companies selling CBD products that they were in violation. What are some potential violations? Marketing a product as a dietary supplement, touting a health benefit or therapeutic use, or claiming a product is suitable for kids. The FDA also prohibits adding CBD to food, saying the ingredient hasn’t been proven safe for consumption by humans or pets. In March, the FDA released a statement reiterating that it has not assessed the efficacy or safety of any CBD product, besides Epidiolex, and calling for “reliable and high-quality data” on CBD from researchers.

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Maybe all this haziness explains why my new life insurance carrier gave me a hard time after I revealed that I take CBD regularly. During my yearly physical, I listed it along with my allergy medication and birth control pills. No big deal, right? I thought so—until I got a phone call a few days later. The insurance rep asked why I took CBD, how much I took, what prompted me to take it, whether I’d ever used marijuana or other illegal drugs, whether I felt I was dependent on CBD…it was kinda scary, to be honest. I was worried I’d jeopardized my chance of getting life insurance. Luckily, I got approved, but the exchange told me there is still a lot of doubt about CBD out there, even among medical experts.

The Science Behind CBD

Until 2018, not even hemp—which contains less than 0.3 percent THC—was legal. As a result, U.S. researchers found it extremely difficult to conduct large-scale, randomized, placebo-controlled studies of CBD, Gruber says. But the existing research shows that CBD—short for cannabidiol, an extract from cannabis plants, such as hemp—plays a role in improving sleep and reducing anxiety and pain. “Some studies looked at small samples, but they are promising,” Gruber notes. In the near future, expect to see more comprehensive research, she adds. Here’s what experts currently know for sure.

Epidiolex is the only FDA-approved cannabidiol medication. It’s used to treat seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Seven days of low-dose CBD injections helped reverse chronic nerve pain and related anxiety in rats, according to a 2019 study in Pain.

Psychiatric patients who added CBD capsules (25 to 175 milligrams) to their standard treatment noted improved anxiety and better sleep, a 2019 study by Colorado researchers found. Also, a review of 49 medical studies concluded that CBD safely reduced anxiety behaviors related to social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder, among other conditions.

In a 2007 study (predating the CBD boom), orally administered cannabidiol relieved sciatic nerve constriction and inflammatory pain in rats.