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What is CBD really good for?

There is a lot of hope in the healing powers of CBD. Unfortunately there's way more hype.

cbd oil tincture
Photo by Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt / AFP
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is the most well-known of the 113 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.
  • There is strong evidence that CBD might help in an array of problems, including anxiety and pain management.
  • But numerous companies are marketing low doses of CBD with no proven efficacy and charging a premium.

I began noticing a new beverage in Los Angeles. The first thing you notice is the cheap wrapping, as if directly printed at home and pasted onto the bottle. The sparse print leaves room for plenty of white space. The first six ingredients of one particular flavor are all juice or sugar: blackberry, ginger, blueberry, and lemon juices, along with erythritol (sugar alcohol) and agave. Stevia is featured later on. The final ingredient is the selling point: Hemp CBD.

Each bottle retails for $8.99. Effectively, glorified vitamin water.

Or CBD water, which makes it this year's additive du jour. I've seen this drink sold in the same case as a sugar-rich CBD-infused coffee drink that sells for a dollar less and six fewer ounces. CBD is as trendy as its forebears, antioxidants, keto supplements, and açaí rolled into one, the superfood of superfoods. And you will pay a premium for it.

I've been a marijuana smoker for 25 years, well before I knew about the endocannabinoid system. I was clueless that our central and peripheral nervous systems—and by "our," I mean mammals—were tailor-made to accept cannabinoids (including the most famous, cannabidiol, aka CBD), and that these systems play an essential role in immune system functioning, pain management, and regulation of appetite. I didn't know it for a long time, but I've certainly felt it.

Point being, I'm a fan. Cannabis helped me deal with cancer and chemotherapy, pain management through multiple surgeries, and chronic anxiety disorder. Marijuana helped keep me off Xanax and opioids. Despite that fact that I was among those who nodded and winked when getting my California medical license, I'm skeptical of the hype. The collapsing dominoes that led to legalization have brought with them a gold rush of CBD-infused products and all the ridiculous claims that come along with it.

When Coca Cola is jumping aboard, you know it's going to get weird.

I'm not the only one who's suspicious. As Dan Nosowitz writes at Vox, this trend is the result of two collisions: widespread marijuana legalization and the growing anxiety economy. By 2020, CBD products could reach a billion dollars in sales, making it a potential goldmine for speculators.

There are benefits to CBD, at least according to some reports. As I wrote last month:

Recent research shows a wide range of therapeutic applications, including helping opioid addicts manage pain, helping everyone deal with chronic pain, deal with stress (at low doses), ease pain associated with multiple sclerosis, and may even, somewhat counterintuitively, help combat the obesity epidemic.

Yet CBD is enforced as a supplement, as unregulated by the FDA as most homeopathic products and "natural remedies" that make up a lion's share of the $49 billion herbal supplement industry. According to Nosowitz, the FDA actually regulates CBD as an active ingredient, meaning you shouldn't be able to just throw it into a cup of coffee and double the price, but what sort of regulations are any federal agency even enforcing these days? Nosowitz continues:

CBD is about as poorly regulated and understood as a product this popular can possibly be. It's not accurate to say that CBD, as a whole, is bullshit. From a medical perspective, it's promising; recreationally, it's interesting. But that doesn't mean the stuff you're buying works.

Photo: Alexandre Chambon / Unsplash

The burgeoning CBD oil industry, for example, faces a serious problem: science. Not that that stops any holistic company. Topical application or ingestion of CBD are much less effective means than inhaling. Sipping it from your hyped-up vitamin water means most of the CBD will just bind to other fat in your body and never reach your brain. Smoking, as Nosowitz writes, "bypasses the digestive system."

Even then, he was only able to discover one study detailing the bioavailability of inhaled CBD and none on topical lotions. Even more problematic is dosage. One study discovered that the only amount of CBD that made a noticeable difference in anxiety levels was 300 mg. The standard dose in most products is 20 mg. One coffee shop Nosowitz highlights adds 5 mg to their $9 coffee. So really, you just paid $9 for… coffee.

More studies are being conducted on CBD and, hopefully, the 112 other cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant. Legalization and destigmatization will hasten that process. We should welcome this progress so that we can separate the wheat from the chaff—the flower from the stem—and make smart decisions about how to apply this plant medicine. Then we can stand on firmer ground when denouncing market manipulators bucking a trend and put our money into products that work as intended.

In my refrigerator sits a $42 bottle of CBD oil we bought for our cats when we were integrating our newest member with our overly territorial Maine Coon. At 300 mg per bottle, it would have taken the lion's share to quell any anxiety—cats being smaller than humans would likely not require the same dose. Still, the recommended dose did nothing to stop their anxiety.

Something else did: Prozac. It's not a long-term strategy (as such anti-anxiety medications were never designed to be). Over a three-month period it's worked wonders; we're now tapering them off. That's the thing about clinical studies: sometimes they're effective. It's a message I hope CBD hucksters take the time to learn.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

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Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
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Mind & Brain

The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

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