Paige and Matt Figi were at their wit's end. Their five-year-old daughter, Charlotte, had a rare form of epilepsy known as Davet syndrome, and she was suffering around 300 grand mal seizures a week. Her heart had stopped several times, and she was put into a medically induced coma just to give her small body some respite. There was nothing else the doctors could do for her.
Desperately searching the internet for solutions, Paige and Matt read several accounts of how CBD oil—a derivative of cannabis and hemp—had helped people with epilepsy. Although they were worried about giving a small child a form of cannabis, they also felt they had nothing to lose. Within a year, their boldness was rewarded, and Charlotte's seizures had all but stopped.
Since her story was featured on CNN in 2013, there has been "an explosion of research," according to the National Institutes of Health's Pal Pacher, a pharmacologist. Animal tests, and even small studies on a handful of people, have suggested that CBD can help a range of health problems from epilepsy to the healing of bone fractures, pain, inflammation, Crohn's disease and even some cancers.
Health authorities are less enthusiastic. CBD (cannabidiol) is the therapeutic ingredient in cannabis—first discovered back in 1940—and it's sometimes called "the hippie's disappointment" because it doesn't make the user high; that's the function of another ingredient, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Medical marijuana, as it's also called, is permitted in many Western countries as long as the THC content is kept to just 0.2 percent.
But cannabis is still listed as a schedule 1 drug—the same classification given to heroin—by the US and UK governments, at least at the national level. This has impeded research as well as its more widespread use, since licensed practitioners are often the only ones who can prescribe high-dose CBD.
However, the tide is certainly turning. The first CBD-based drugs are getting approval; the first was Sativex, a 1-to-1 ratio of CBD and THC, to treat the painful muscle spasms seen in multiple sclerosis, and the second, Epidiolex, was approved this year by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat epilepsy. Both drugs are made by British drug company GW Pharma.
Despite the restrictions, CBD is "a Disneyland for pharmacologists," said Francisco Guimaraes, a pharmacologist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, who has discovered that it helps new neurons to grow in the brain, and especially the hippocampus, which is linked to depression and anxiety.
Although CBD seems to help with a wide range of conditions, nobody is quite sure how it works. Our body has cannabinoid receptors—CB1 receptors are found in the brain and help regulate pain, movement and cognitive abilities, and CB2 receptors are mainly found in the immune system and control inflammation and pain—and it's thought that taking CBD helps the body develop more of its own cannabinoids, which could trigger healing.
Here are some research findings:
Fractures. CBD helps fractures heal more quickly. On the face of it, it's bizarre—but it actually explains why CBD could help with so many other conditions, too.
When we suffer a fracture, CBD activates the processes that make bones stronger and accelerates the building of new bone. Afterward, the bone is stronger than before, making it less likely to fracture in the future, say researchers at Tel Aviv University who made the discovery when they tested both CBD and THC on a group of laboratory rats.
The CBD group's bones healed more quickly, while THC didn't have the same effect. This could mean that CBD can prevent osteoporosis and other bone problems as we age, the researchers say.1
Pain. Pain relief was one of the first uses of CBD, and research continues to demonstrate that it's an effective analgesic. In one experiment on laboratory rats, a derivative of CBD, MDA19, relieved neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage, which is common in people suffering from trauma and diabetes. Not surprisingly, researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston also discovered that the pain relief was greater with higher doses.2
Another study, which explored pain's impact on sleep, discovered that half the 2,000 patients tested started to enjoy a full night's sleep after taking CBD or a combination of CBD and THC. There were no serious side-effects or dosages that caused problems, but it helped the patients—suffering from multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathic pain, cancer pain and rheumatoid arthritis—get some high-quality rest.3
Inflammation. CBD is also an anti-inflammatory. It communicates with two receptors in the body—CB1 and CB2—and it's CB2 that regulates the inflammatory response. When their CB2 receptors are activated, immune cells release fewer inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines. In tests on mice and rats, CBD has shown promise for conditions including arthritis, swelling, and inflammation in the brain and intestines.4
Crohn's disease. Crohn's disease is a form of inflammatory bowel disease that doesn't respond to conventional treatment. When 21 sufferers were given cannabis or a placebo, five of 11 in the cannabis group achieved complete remission of their symptoms, compared to just one of 10 in the placebo group. Ten in the cannabis group also reported a marked reduction in symptoms. The eight weeks of treatment achieved "significant clinical, steroid-free benefits," the researchers said. 5
Alzheimer's disease. Amyloid beta is a protein that forms into plaques in the brain that are regularly seen in Alzheimer's patients—and cannabis can help remove them. Researchers from the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, tested cannabis compounds, including THC, on brain cells grown in the lab, and found they reduced amyloid beta protein levels and completely eliminated the inflammatory response.6
Epilepsy. The treatment of epilepsy was what put CBD on the therapeutic map. The bulk of the scientific evidence for its effectiveness comes from Colorado, one of the first states to legalize marijuana, although the results have been mixed.
In one study of 58 children and adolescents given CBD, one-third cut their rate of seizure by at least half, but 21 percent reported an increase in seizures. CBD fared better in cases of infantile spasms and a severe form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome; of the 53 children treated, 92 percent had a reduction in seizures.7
In a separate study of Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, sufferers reported a 42 percent reduction in 'drop seizures'—where there is a severe loss of muscle control and balance—when they were given 20mg CBD, and this fell slightly to 37 percent in those given 10mg. 8
To get its first CBD drug, Epidiolex, approved, GW Pharma put together four studies that showed CBD's effectiveness in treating severe cases of epilepsy. In one study of 261 children, nearly half experienced at least a 50 percent reduction in seizures. 9
Cancer. CBD appears to triple the survival rate for pancreatic cancer, at least in animals. In humans, pancreatic cancer is considered virtually untreatable—chemotherapy achieves a five-year survival rate of just 7 percent. But when researchers from Queen Mary University in London gave CBD to mice with the disease, their survival rate tripled. A similar effect in humans could see CBD "in use in cancer clinics almost immediately," said lead researcher Marco Falasca. 10
CBD triggers cell death (apoptosis) in breast cancer cells, researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston discovered in laboratory tests on cancer cell lines,11 and it also stops lung cancer cells from growing and spreading, a separate study found.12
It even stops the growth of aggressive, life-threatening breast cancer and seems to be especially effective in cases of so-called 'triple-negative' breast cancer. It appears to interrupt the cells' signaling ability to prevent them from spreading. 13
CBD spray is an effective pain reliever for patients with advanced and end-stage cancer. In one test on 43 cancer patients, researchers from a hospice in Shropshire, UK, discovered that the spray reduced pain and helped the patients' insomnia and fatigue. 14
CBD also slows the growth of colon cancer cells. Interestingly, the CBD didn't affect healthy cells, say researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. But it seems to activate CB1 and CB2 receptors that help to slow the spread of the cancer. 15
Making things go better
CBD has caught the interest of beverage giant Coca-Cola. The company is in preliminary talks with Canadian cannabis company Aurora Cannabis about introducing a new line of CBD-infused drinks.
Although Coca-Cola hopes that the new range—should it ever see the light of day—would eventually be available around the world, it's no accident that the company is talking to a Canadian producer. Last October, the country became only the second in the world—after Venezuela—to fully legalize cannabis.
Coca-Cola is not the first entrant into the CBD beverage market. Brands such as Dirty Lemon and Beboe are already available, but Coca-Cola would be the first global conglomerate that takes an interest.
The new drink would be positioned as "a functional wellness beverage," said Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers on Bloomberg News TV.
Think cannabis, and images of smoking pot or weed come to mind. That's because of the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in cannabis that makes people feel 'high,' but it's just one of the 113 cannabinoids found in hemp plants.
CBD (cannabidiol), which was discovered and isolated in laboratory tests in 1940, makes up around 40 percent of the extract from a hemp plant. Different cannabis plants deliver various levels of THC and CBD naturally, but for any CBD product to be allowed for sale in stores, the THC level must be below 0.2 percent.
CBD can be taken several ways: by smoke inhalation or vapor, as an aerosol spray into the cheek, or as an oil, often placed under the tongue.
Although CBD won't make you high, it can cause drowsiness, diarrhea and sleeping problems.