The science of CBD lags behind its marketing

Nancy ShuteTreatments for pain and other common health problems often fall short, leading to untold misery and frustration. So it’s not hard to understand the lure of a treatment that promises to be benign, natural and good for just about everything that ails you. Enter cannabidiol, or CBD.

So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only one drug containing the chemical: a treatment for rare and severe forms of epilepsy. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying CBD to relieve arthritis, morning sickness, pain, depression, anxiety, addiction, inflammation and acne. And it hasn’t kept companies from marketing the heck out of CBD-infused anything. It’s the sort of situation that gets us wondering: What’s the science here?

The science is skimpy at best, neuroscience writer Laura Sanders reports in this issue. Clinical trials, some of which included children, were conducted to determine safety and efficacy before the FDA approved the first CBD-based epilepsy drug in 2018. But much less research has been done on CBD with regard to other ailments.

Adding to the intrigue, CBD can be extracted from marijuana, though CBD lacks the capacity to induce a buzzy high like its sister molecule THC. So government restrictions have been tight, and scientists have had a hard time getting access to CBD for studies. That makes it less likely that we’ll get clear answers anytime soon on whether CBD is indeed a panacea, or just another triumph of hype.

The surplus of unknowns hasn’t stopped companies from marketing hundreds of CBD products as treatments, attempting to avoid scrutiny by adding disclaimers that the products “are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure or prevent any disease.” But with such large gaps in the research, people trying these products in the hope of benefit become inadvertent guinea pigs.

The process of science may be frustratingly slow, but it can get the job done. In the last decade, clinical trials on vitamin D, for example, have found that despite much excitement surrounding the “sunshine vitamin,” there’s no definitive evidence of benefits in preventing heart disease or cancer. In our recent cover story “Vitamin D supplements aren’t living up to their hype,” contributing correspondent Laura Beil described the years of effort needed to develop that data (SN: 2/2/19, p. 16).

As journalists, we see a big part of our mission as making sure that people have access to accurate, timely information about medical research, so people can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. That’s especially important when it involves products that people can self-prescribe. These two articles — by skilled journalists who put weeks of effort into reading studies, talking with researchers and investigating the business side — are great examples of how sophisticated and useful consumer science journalism can be. Most people look for health information online, but Googling a term like “CBD oil” serves up a muddle of marketing masquerading as impartial information.

CBD may end up being a worthwhile treatment for some problems beyond epilepsy; it’s too early to know. But while we wait for the evidence, it’s essential to know where the science stands right now.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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