Is CBD Oil a Placebo Scam?

From lattes to tinctures and baked goods to topical balms, CBD (cannabidiol) seems to be popping up in everything everywhere. Type “CBD” into your Google Search bar, and you’ll stumble upon a veritable rabbit hole, with almost 200 million results, ranging from news articles in major publications to retail sites. CBD, like intermittent fasting or acai bowls, seemingly became an overnight sensation. But amid the mounds of information, including sometimes-contradictory claims, it may not be easy to decipher whether CBD, like any other wellness product, is legit. 

What Is CBD? 

When you think of CBD, you probably think of pot. But although both CBD and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are two of more than 140 cannabinoids found in cannabis Sativa plants, CBD is more like a cousin to THC, rather than a sibling. The two naturally occurring compounds have similar medicinal properties, and the plant, inclusive of both THC and CBD, has been used for medicinal and ritualistic purposes since about 750 BC. However, CBD doesn’t get you “high.” For this reason, in part, it is both far more widely and openly used and less strictly regulated. 

Currently, the FDA has only approved one CBD-derived product, Epidiolex, a purified CBD extract, to treat rare, drug-resistant seizure disorders that most often affect children.  

The lack of federal regulation is a large part of why so many people ponder whether CBD products are legit or just another fad born of a multi-billion-dollar health and wellness industry. But it’s important to note the lack of an FDA seal of approval doesn’t necessarily mean something doesn’t work. 

The Endocannabanoid System 

In the 1990s, researchers got an inkling that all those pot-smoking hippies might be onto something bigger than the popularization of reggae music, stoner movies, and mushroom-themed decor. They began to look into the effects of cannabis on the human body. How and why did ingesting or inhaling marijuana produce such results, and could its use be beneficial for more than recreational purposes?

What they discovered was indeed much more than just a good time. The scientists isolated phytochemicals derived from the cannabis plant and studied how these worked within the body. In doing so, they revealed a complex nerve-signaling system dubbed the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system is comprised of numerous receptors, enzymes, and biochemical pathways involved in making and utilizing the body’s cannabinoids (called endocannabinoids). 

As UCLA Health explains, the researchers discovered, cannabis is effective, in part, because it mimics the endocannabinoids we have in our bodies. 

After discovering the ECS in humans, researchers investigated further and discovered the same neurochemicals are present in all vertebrates in the animal kingdom, from dogs and cats to birds and sea urchins. Scientists have determined the ECS evolved nearly 600 million years ago. 

Researchers still have yet to fully understand the scope and capabilities of the ECS. But what we do know so far is it plays a role in maintaining body homeostasis and regulating several body processes and functions, including sleep, mood, appetite, memory, and fertility/reproduction. There are endocannabinoid receptors in the brain and nerves and in various other parts of the body, including the skin, fat, muscle, bone, liver, pancreas, heart, blood vessels, and immune cells kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. 

It is active in the body regardless of whether or not you use cannabis or its derivatives. 

How the ECS Works 

So far, researchers know of two endocannabinoids: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). Your body makes these as needed, similar to how the body manufacturers other nutrients, like vitamin D

When endocannabinoids bind to endocannabinoid receptors, the ECS kicks into gear. There are two primary endocannabinoid receptors: CB1, which mostly deals with the central nervous system, and CB2, which have more to do with the peripheral nervous system, mainly immune functions. 

THC and CBD are the VIPs of the cannabis plant’s team of cannabinoids. THC, of course, produces a “high” sensation. It does this by binding to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, allowing it to affect the body and mild simultaneously. 

On the other hand, CBD does not bind to endocannabinoid receptors in the same way as THC does. Likewise, it does not have the same intoxicating effect. CBD can work independently without THC. 

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly how CBD interacts with the ECS (told you it was complicated). But most believe it influences receptors, rather than binding to them, and prevents endocannabinoids from breaking down. Others suggest CBD binds to a yet-to-be-discovered receptor.

To put it simply, THC is more like drinking coffee, while CBD is more like taking a supplement like D or magnesium. 

Is CBD Legit or Not? 

CBD’s interaction with the endocannabinoid system and its anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties can positively affect a variety of conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, depression, chronic pain, arthritis, menstrual cramps, and even epilepsy. It may also help people overcome addiction

As James MacKillep, co-director of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in Hamilton, Ontario, told The New York Times, “It’s promising in a lot of different therapeutic avenues because it’s relatively safe.” 

Most CBD research to date has been conducted on animals. But MacKillep is one of many scientists and healthcare professionals to confirm its safety and effectiveness in human treatments. 

The journal Neuropsychopharmacology published the findings of a small experiment demonstrating the positive impact of CBD oil on people with anxiety, while the Department of Veterans Affairs is conducting its first experiment to determine CBD’s effects on post-traumatic stress in conjunction with psychotherapy. There is also scientific evidence supporting CBD’s effectiveness in treating sleep disorders and difficulties and depression

And that’s not to mention the slew of people who can personally attest to CBD’s benefits. About 64 million Americans reported trying CBD oil in the past 24 months, according to a January 2019 Consumer Reports survey of more than 4,000 Americans across the nation. According to the study, about a quarter of respondents had tried CBD for medical and physical purposes. Of those, about one in seven said they use it daily. 

Choose Your CBD Wisely 

While there’s ample evidence CBD can be beneficial to a broad range of people for various reasons, not all CBD is created equal. As with any consumer goods, some brands and products are better than others. Fortunately, while CBD may not be strictly regulated at a federal level like pharmaceuticals, there are ways to make sure you’re getting the real thing. 

First, buy from a trustworthy company, like Bespoke Extracts, Fiora, or Endoca, containing verifiable quality ingredients. (Hint: If you’re wary of buying a sandwich from the gas station, probably don’t buy your CBD oil there either). Look for the brand’s Certificate of Analysis (COA). This is a third-party document detailing how the product performed when tested for CBD and THC concentration levels and tests for harmful contaminants. 

Also, while the FDA cannot federally approve a CBD product, it can be made, as Bespoke Extracts’ products are, in an FDA approved facility. And ensure the company uses testing methods validated by one of three standard-setting national organizations: the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, or the US Pharmacopeia. 

If in doubt, ask. A reputable CBD supplier should have a wealth of information on their site or in their shop, including verifying the above certificates. They should also be happy to discuss which products might be most helpful for your needs and what dosage may be appropriate.