Do a quick Google search of CBD oil (more formally known as cannabidiol) and it seems to be a miracle cure. The compound is touted for its ability to ease everything from pain to epilepsy (in fact, the FDA recently approved a CBD-derived drug for a rare form of the condition).
People even swear it improves mood conditions such as anxiety. One 2018 studypublished in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research found that about 62 percent of people who use CBD do so to treat a medical condition (popular ones being pain, depression, and anxiety).
“CBD is one component of cannabis,” says Jordan Tishler, MD, a Harvard physician and president and CEO of the Association of Cannabis Specialists. But unlike THC, the component of cannabis that produces the ‘high,’ CBD is less intoxicating, says Dr. Tishler, though he notes that it’s not non-psychoactive.
Which brings us back to that anxiety point: If CBD can act on the brain and show promise in neurological conditions such as epilepsy and seizures, could it also show promise in helping to treat conditions such as anxiety? Here, what we know right now from the (albeit limited) research and industry experts.
First: How does CBD oil work, exactly?
When it enters your body, the molecule works on what’s known as the endocannabinoid system. “This is an actual system in the body that consists of receptors in the brain, organs, and immune system that are responsible for keeping your body in balance,” explains Arno Hazekamp, PhD, a biochemist and consultant for the cannabis industry.
This system kicks up when things get out of balance, playing a role in sleep regulation, pain, inflammation, appetite, but also potentially anxiety (likely because neurotransmitters play a role in anxiety), Hazekamp notes.
But the endocannabinoid system is complicated—and there’s still a lot researchers don’t know about it (it was only discovered in the 90s!) and how molecules such as CBD interact with it.
So what does the research say about CBD oil for anxiety?
Well, there’s definitely a link between the two—and CBD has been studied in humans. One 2015 study, for example, even supported the use of acute doses of CBD for generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. One other small study from 2011 linked CBD (one dose of 600 mg) with a dampening in feelings of social anxiety in people with social anxiety disorder.
On the flip side, other studies have found CBD to have no impact on highly-paranoid people’s anxiety levels. And, in large, clinical studies in big populations are lacking (after all, it’s hard to study a drug that’s still technically illegal).
A 2017 review of CBD’s potential impact on anxiety by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine also determined there wasn’t enough solid evidence to suggest that CBD could be an effective treatment for anxiety.
So could CBD oil ease anxiety or not?
As of now, it’s too soon to know for sure. Here’s one big problem: The positive effect CBD could have on anxiety has mostly been shown in high doses—600 mg per day or more, says Dr. Tishler. And not only is this an amount of CBD that could come with side effects—nausea, wakefulness (potentially insomnia), jitteriness (much like overdoing it on caffeine), increased heart rate—as Dr. Tishler says: “This is financially unrealistic as it equates to $50 to $100 per day.
He also says that the placebo effect could play a role in some of the data out there. “People feel they’re getting what they expect to get.”
And as Hazekamp explains, CBDcould impact the balance of the endocannabinoid system in the short-term, leading to positive results, but at this point, taking CBD for anxiety would be comparable to taking any random painkiller and hoping it fixes any random pain.
“You have to find the right combination,” he says. And figuring that out as well as what might work for who—because while anxiety can exhibit similar symptoms in different people, causes can be different—is difficult and there just isn’t enough research yet.
As of now, Hazekamp notes that industry experts are still grappling with how CBD is being sold, marketed, and purchased, too, since various forms are available both as a food supplement and as molecule with medicinal powers. “We’re very much in the middle of the discussion,” he says.
The bottom line: There simply isn’t enough research to support taking CBD oil for anxiety—but there are some things to consider if you want to try it anyway.
A word of caution: Self-diagnosis—especially with a mental health condition such as anxiety—is never a good idea. “There are many causes of what is, or may appear to be, anxiety,” notes Dr. Tishler. “Some are more serious than others, and having a clinician evaluate you is key.”
After all, conditions such as hyperthyroidism, heart disease, ADHD, PTSD, and others can be mistaken for routine anxiety, and are all treated differently. So if you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s best to check in with your doctor to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Plus, unlike other FDA-approved medications that you’d take, over-the-counter CBD products aren’t regulated, so it’s hard to know what you’re actually getting. Case in point: One 2017 study in the journal JAMA found that of 84 CBD products bought online, 43 percent had more CBD than their labels suggested, 26 percent had less, and some even had THC in them.
❗Plant extracts can interfere with other drugs you might be taking, reducing their efficacy or amplifying their side effects, says Hazekamp. If you’re taking CBD, always let your doctor know.