What Is CBD?

There are many questions surrounding this cannabis product. Here are some of the most common questions and the answers to them.

While modern-day CBD might still seem new, CBD has been around for centuries. According to a 2020 article in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, CBD use was first attested to about 12,000 years ago in Central Asia. Since then, CBD has enjoyed notoriety for its medicinal applications.

Today's CBD comes in a variety of products and uses. Coffee shops sell CBD lattes, spas offer CBD facials, and beauty companies are spiking their products with CBD. And there are CBD gummies as well.

But despite its popularity, information on CBD can be confusing—especially when it comes to figuring out the right way to use it, how to make sure the products you're buying are legit, and what it does. And is it even legal? Here are the answers to the most pressing questions about CBD.

What Is CBD?

CBD is short for cannabidiol, a naturally-occurring chemical found in the Cannabis sativa plant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cannabis is a genus of plants that contain many different compounds that can have different effects on the body.

Two different cannabis plants are marijuana and hemp. Two of the chemicals in these plants are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Marijuana has higher levels of THC and lower levels of CBD while hemp has higher levels of CBD and lower levels of THC.

Unlike THC, which creates a "high" when used, CBD is not psychoactive, according to the CDC. Therein lies the major difference.

So CBD Won't Get Me High?

Nope. While cannabis plants contain hundreds of compounds (called phytocannabinoids), there are two main players: CBD and THC, according to the CDC. "CBD is the non-psychoactive portion of the plant, so what that means is you won't have any effects like euphoria," said Junella Chin, DO, an osteopathic physician and a medical cannabis expert for cannabisMD. "You won't feel sedated or altered in any way."

There are two possible exceptions to this. The first is that, for unknown reasons, some people just react differently to CBD. According to Dr. Chin, about 5% of people say they feel altered after taking CBD. "Usually, they're the same people who have side effects from Advil or Tylenol," said Dr. Chin. You never know how your body will react to any new supplement, so when taking CBD for the first time, do so safely with medical supervision.

It's also crucial to buy third-party-tested CBD for quality assurance. Because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate CBD, it is possible to buy a product that is more or less potent than advertised or even contains small amounts of THC. And while they don't regulate CBD products, the FDA will issue warning letters to companies who violate certain laws, such as those companies producing products containing THC or making false medical claims on their labels.

What Are the Health Benefits of CBD?

Read any CBD product testimonials and you'll see that people claim CBD has helped with a slew of health conditions, including back pain, osteoarthritis, and even cancer. But the only CBD medication that is currently FDA-approved is Epidiolex, which was approved for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy.

"My practice has patients walking in every day asking about CBD," said Houman Danesh, MD, director of integrative pain management for the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. But while there's lots of anecdotal evidence, Dr. Danesh noted that it's still difficult to say what the real benefits are due to a lack of research.

"Right now, you just have pharmacies trying to make some sort of sense out of it and say, 'Yes, it works for this,'" said Dr. Danesh, "but that's not the way medicine is practiced—it should be based on evidence, and there's not a lot of evidence to really support these claims."

And while unbiased research is scant, some studies are showing promise. For example, according to this 2021 observational study published in the Journal of Cannabis Research, CBD-rich treatment helps relieve moderate to severe levels of pain, anxiety, and depression, as well as improves overall well-being in people with these symptoms. The study did not show the benefit of CBD in those with mild symptoms.

Is CBD Worth Trying for Pain Management?

According to Dr. Danesh, there are two main types of pain: musculoskeletal and nerve. "There could be benefits for both conditions," said Dr. Danesh.

The tricky part is that there's some evidence suggesting CBD works best for pain when combined with a little THC, explained Dr. Danesh. "Depending on what type of pain you have, you might be able to do just CBD, but sometimes you need [both] CBD and THC."

Figuring out how much you should take is challenging as well; the dosage that alleviates one person's pain might do very little for someone else. "And until we can study it, it's the wild west," said Dr. Danesh.

So is it worth trying? "I think CBD is a safe thing to try," said Dr. Danesh, but he urged people to push for more research by putting pressure on representatives to get national bills passed that allow scientists to look closer at CBD and the conditions that respond to it.

Can CBD Help With Anxiety?

CBD might be worth trying to help manage symptoms of anxiety. "[CBD] tells your body to calm down and reminds you that you're safe," said Dr. Chin. "It mellows out the nervous system so you're not in a heightened 'fight or flight' response," explained Dr. Chin. For this reason, people with anxiety may find it helps them feel more relaxed.

Still, one of the biggest misconceptions about CBD is that it's a wonder drug. "A lot of times, people think CBD is a cure-all—and it's not," said Dr. Chin. "You should also have a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and good nutrition. CBD is not going to fix everything."

What's the Best Way To Take CBD?

The best way for you to administer CBD depends on your preference. Some people don't want to ingest anything and therefore prefer a topical CBD cream or ointment. "You can apply it to muscles, joints, and ligaments and still get a nice localized release," said Dr. Chin.

The biggest differences between tinctures, edibles, and vape pens are the speed of delivery and how long the effects last. Vape relief is faster but wears off faster too—usually in about two hours, said Dr. Chin. "Say you woke up in the morning and pulled your back out. You might want to take CBD through a vape pen, which delivers [CBD] in 10 minutes."

"A tincture looks like a little liquid that you put under your tongue, and you feel relief within half an hour," said Dr. Chin. "If you prefer to taste something, you choose an edible, whether it's a capsule, gummy, or baked good."

What Should I Look for When Shopping for CBD Products?

"There are literally hundreds of CBD brands at this point," said Brandon Beatty, founder and CEO of Bluebird Botanicals and an executive vice president of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable. Here are a few things you should keep in mind when shopping.

What's on the Label?

If it's a dietary supplement, it should have a back panel with an FDA disclaimer and warning section, according to Beatty. "Ideally, it would be preferable to have access to their third-party lab testing results too."

Has It Been Third-Party Tested?

Quality assurance is a real concern in the industry. Make sure your CBD products were tested by a third party to confirm the label's accuracy. A third party is a reputable independent organization that has no ties to the company selling the product.

Take the 2017 Journal of the American Medical Association study, for example. This study tested 84 CBD products and found that 26% contained lower doses of CBD than stated on the bottle.

Look for a quality assurance stamp or certificate of analysis from a third party or check the retailer's website if you don't see it on the product's label. NSF International is one of the leading third-party testing organizations for supplements. If you're not sure your supplement is third-party tested, you can use the search tool on the NSF site for this purpose.

What's the Dosing?

This is a confusing one for many people. "A lot of brands don't do a good job of clearly instructing their consumer on the dosing," said Chris Roth, CEO and co-founder of Highline Wellness.

When thinking about dosing, also consider whether your CBD is full-spectrum or isolate. According to The Center for Advancing Health, full-spectrum could include other cannabinoids like cannabidivarin or cannabigerol. This is important, since "there's something called the 'entourage effect' when all together, they're more effective than any one of them alone," explained Roth.

Isolate, on the other hand, is 100% CBD, according to The Center for Advancing Health. Some people might only need 10 milligrams of full-spectrum CBD, but with isolate, even taking 80 or 100 milligrams might not have the same effect," said Roth.

Does It Claim to Cure Disease?

If the product claims to cure disease, this is a hard pass. "You should avoid any company that makes disease claims," said Beatty. "If [they are making these claims], it means they're either willing to break the rules, or they're not aware of the rules."

Is There a Batch Number?

You know how you check the batch number of raw chicken or bagged lettuce every time there's a recall to make sure the one you bought isn't going to make you sick? You should be able to do that with CBD products too. "This is a huge indicator as to whether they are following good manufacturing practices," said Beatty. "There should be a way to identify this product in case it was improperly made so the company can carry out a recall."

Are There Additional Ingredients in There?

As with any supplement, you want to know everything you're ingesting in addition to CBD. For example, "sometimes I notice that [CBD manufacturers] will add melatonin," said Dr. Chin.

Where Are You Buying It?

You can find CBD products in shopping malls, convenience stores, and even coffee shops in many states. Then there are the plethora of online retailers selling CBD products. When in doubt, natural grocers are a safe brick-and-mortar place to buy CBD, said Beatty. "Typically, they have a vetting process that does some of the legwork for you."

Is It Legal?

In 2018, President Trump signed a new Farm Bill—the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018—that made it federally legal to grow hemp, according to the FDA. This means that "consumers everywhere if they're compliant with their state, can grow hemp and use hemp products," explained Parrish, "and among those will be CBD."

"Hemp can now be grown freely under federal law, which, of course, is huge," said Parrish. "But while it's legal under federal law, it's up to each state to set their own policy."

These policies vary widely. In several states, marijuana and CBD are fully legal for both medicinal and recreational purposes. In other states, it's legal in some form, such as just for medicinal purposes. And still, other states permit just CBD oil, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For more information, the organization Americans for Safe Access has a helpful guide to the specific laws in each state.

"It's kind of ironic," said Parrish. "With marijuana, we have got the federal government saying 'No' and a bunch of states saying 'Yeah, it's OK.' But with hemp, the feds say 'Yeah, it's OK,' but we still have some states saying it's not."

Can You Travel With CBD?

"Flying with CBD should pose no issues now," said Parrish. However, Parrish added that if you're traveling with a tincture, be mindful of TSA limits on how much liquid you can carry on an airplane.

Parrish also noted that you can mail CBD products, just like "companies that comply with the Bill can ship their hemp-derived CBD products anywhere in the US."

Will CBD Show Up on a Drug Test?

CBD should not show up on a drug test as long as you're buying third-party tested CBD with no added THC, said Dr. Chin. But Dr. Chin did point out that athletes, who often are required to take more sensitive drug tests, "could potentially test positive" for trace amounts of THC if they've been using CBD products.

Can I Take CBD While Pregnant?

The short answer to CBD use during pregnancy is no because there is so little research on this topic. A 2020 review in Frontiers in Pharmacology states that pregnant individuals are placing their fetuses in danger by using CBD products. Any CBD products have other ingredients that may not be safe to use while pregnant.

It's always wise to err on the side of caution when pregnant or breastfeeding, so forego the CBD until your little one is no longer dependent on you for nourishment.

Can I Give It to My Dog?

Are you tempted to give your pup one of those CBD dog biscuits? "Generally we expect CBD products to be safe, and they could show some benefit for anxiety in pets," said John Faught, DVM, a veterinarian based in Austin, Texas.

But the challenge when considering CBD products for pets is the same as with people: lack of research. "I believe there are good products out there today, but I also don't know how to distinguish them at this time," said Faught.


CBD is a naturally occurring chemical that may provide benefits for anxiety, depression, and pain. If you use a CBD product, make sure that it was tested for quality assurance since it isn't regulated by the FDA and may be more or less potent than advertised or even contain small amounts of THC.

While we have some research on the benefits of CBD, there still isn't enough research on the subject and there is still much to learn about CBD and the benefits it can offer.

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