It’s been hailed as a wonder ingredient, added to everything from ice-cream to hummus. But is CBD more than just a wellness trend?
Last month, Lisa Jenkins went for a walk alone around her local park for an hour, the first time she had done so unaided for 13 months. Jenkins was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of three. Now 46, she struggles with vertigo and dizziness, as well as muscle spasms and poor mobility. An Access to Work grant means that she can get a taxi to and from her job in advertising, but for the last three months she hasn’t needed one.
The difference? She believes, a few drops of grassy-tasting oil under the tongue each morning.
“I have been using a 5% CBD oil for six months,” she says. “I previously took Duloxetine [an antidepressant medication also used to treat nerve pain] which was initially helpful, but my muscle-freezing episodes came back and I stopped taking it. I was also prescribed Valium, but you can’t take that during the working day.” A friend suggested she try the legal cannabis derivative. She has since been taking it every morning before work, using more during the day if her muscles become tight. “Within an hour of taking those first three drops, my muscles relax,” she says. “The stress in my head calms down. The longer I take it, the better things seem to be.”
Jenkins is one of an estimated 1.3 million UK consumers who spend a total of £300m a year on cannabidiol (CBD) products. The oil contains one of the non-psychoactive chemicals found in the hemp plant – not the illegal mind-altering THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that gets you high – and has been on the shelves of specialist health food shops and hemp “dispensaries” since 1998. It’s 21 years since the British government first issued a licence for a cannabis extract to be developed for use in clinical trials.
But in the last few years, it has leapt into the mainstream, acquiring the ubiquity of vitamin C and the social status of something much sexier. Most commonly consumed as an oil dropped under the tongue, CBD is also available as gummy sweets, capsules, body salves and e-liquids to vape. A CBD gold rush has led to an explosion of infused products, everything from soft drinks, tea and coffee to ice-cream, toothpaste and shampoo. You can get vaginal suppositories containing CBD (“weed tampons”) that are said to help with pelvic pain; CBD-infused deodorants and sexual lubricant (said to promote relaxation and increase blood flow); even CBD hummus, perhaps to snack on after your lubricated endeavours.
For CBD evangelists, it seems there is no health problem it can’t help – from chronic pain, depression, anxiety and skin conditions to insomnia. Many report that CBD improves concentration, memory and general mood, as well as reducing stress levels. But the products can’t legally make such claims; in the UK, CBD can be sold and advertised only as a generic food supplement. “We never use any medical terminology,” says Johan Obel, director of popular online CBD retailer the Drug Store, standing in front of a huge, gold-framed artwork of a nerve cell in its central London store. “If people come in asking for advice on a specific issue, we tell them to do their own research.” (He adds that their sexual lubricant is “by far one of our bestsellers”.)
The boom in CBD-infused products on the high street is reminiscent of short-lived fads of recent years, such as our brief fixation with chia seeds, turmeric (rendering lattes highlighter-yellow) or spirulina. Only, CBD does not seem to be going anywhere. On a recent walk through London I visited a cafe serving camomile and CBD lattes, passed a yoga studio advertising CBD classes, and a bar serving CBD-infused cocktails. The CBD acronym, with its suggestion of something illicit, is catnip to anxious consumers in need of something they can’t quite put their finger on.
“Most years there is a golden product – a ‘Holy cow, can you believe how much of this we’re selling?’ thing”, says Al Overton, buying director at Planet Organic. “There was the year of quinoa, the year of manuka honey, the year of the goji berry. Now it’s CBD. We have been selling CBD products in our supplement section for just over two years, and it’s been our fastest-growing product in that time. The majority of interested customers are female – especially those who feel that conventional pharmaceuticals aren’t working for them.” He thinks it’s too soon to tell how much of a fixture “infused” foods and drinks will become. “We see oils and capsules as more of a sophisticated and long-lasting trend, but it is early days with the ‘edibles’.”
CBD works by affecting the function of our endocannabinoid system (ECS). Made up of neurons (nerve cells), endocannabinoids (cannabis-like substances the body makes naturally) and cannabinoid receptors, the ECS is responsible for regulating the body’s systems to maintain homeostasis: keeping our internal temperature, blood sugar and pH levels balanced, along with the amount of water in the body. It tells the body when to start sweating (to cool down) and when to stop. Everything from chronic pain to migraines and epileptic seizures have been linked to ECS deficiency.
It is thought that when we introduce a new cannabinoid into the body, such as CBD, it binds with these receptors and, like a molecular power-up, increases the amount of natural cannabinoids in the body. CBD has also been shown to bind with receptors for serotonin (our feelgood molecule) and GABA (the molecule that calms the nervous system), increasing the amount available to the body – offering a potential explanation for CBD’s reported calming effects.