Should You Try CBD?

Here’s how to separate the hope from the hype.

Bottles of CBD oil with hemp leaves

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In this age of anxiety, imagine the perfect medicine. It would help millions of people soothe high stress levels and sleep better. It would be plant-based and natural. Unlike opioids and other pharmaceutical options, it wouldn’t be addictive. It would cause few, if any, negative side effects, but might also bring some more benefits, such as reducing pain and inflammation, among other common bodily concerns.

In the last few years, tens of millions of Americans say they have discovered just this kind of natural compound, providing all these benefits and more. Some doctors and researchers agree. Others are still skeptical — waiting for more evidence. This real-life compound is called cannabidiol, or CBD, and its rise from medical outlaw to a popular wellness phenomenon is gaining attention across America.

How popular is it? In a 2019 Gallup poll, 14 percent of U.S. adults said that they use CBD products, which represents more than 35 million adult Americans. (By comparison, about 8 percent take fish oil, which, until CBD, had long been the most popular health supplement.) According to Consumer Reports research, about three-quarters of users say CBD helps ease symptoms, and more than 20 percent say it is so effective that they replaced other drugs — from over-the-counter painkillers to opioids — with CBD products.

“It seems to make a solid difference in my anxiety and depression,” says Susan Hollins (patient names have been changed throughout). “Before CBD oil, I would easily burst into tears when I got even slightly overwhelmed at work, and that’s completely gone away. I just feel so much calmer and more capable.”

Experts are intrigued. “CBD is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-anxiety, and immunosuppressive,” says Joseph Cohen, D.O., a Colorado physician. In fact, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine convened a committee of experts to review cannabidiol’s effect for pain and insomnia. Their report suggests positive evidence that cannabidiol could be effective. Other experts agree. The European Journal of Pain reported that “use of topical CBD has potential as effective treatment” for the pain of arthritis. Other studies have shown its value for sleep, while U.K. scientists have reported that “CBD reduces resting blood pressure and the blood pressure response to stress.”

Most users take cannabidiol not just for general wellbeing, but to bring relief for a specific problem — most often anxiety, insomnia, or pain. In a 2019 Harris poll, 55 percent said they used CBD for relaxation, while 50 percent cited stress and anxiety relief. Forty-five percent took CBD for sleep issues, while 44 percent said it was to treat muscle pain. (Other types of pain also scored high.)

“Before CBD oil, I would easily burst into tears when I got even slightly overwhelmed at work, and that’s completely gone away. I just feel so much calmer and more capable.”

“I recently was in Cancun vacationing with my family. I had a fall on the concrete steps that buggered up my knee. I had fairly intense pain,” says CBD fan Rita Morales. “My granddaughter said to try her CBD-infused gel, that it would give me relief. I was amazed how the pain eased. I reapplied as needed and it sure saved me some discomfort during the rest of our stay. I have since ordered two containers — one for myself and one for my father, who suffers chronic knee pain.”

With all the hype around CBD, celebrities have noticed, too. In recent years, Melissa McCarthy and Mandy Moore used CBD cream to prevent high-heel pain at the Oscars and Golden Globe ceremonies, respectively. Actress Olivia Wilde used CBD to help soothe her neck aches during a strenuous Broadway run. Jennifer Aniston told Us Weekly, “CBD helps with pain, stress, and anxiety. It has all the benefits of marijuana, without the high.”


How CBD Works

A natural network in the body transports this stabilizing compound to trouble spots

It was the 1990s when scientists first noticed something remarkable about this little compound in the hemp strain of the cannabis plant. Lisa Matsuda, Ph.D., at the National Institute of Mental Health, had just discovered the endocannabinoid system (ECS), an internal human network that had never been understood before. This key regulatory system features receptors within the cells of the brain, organs, and central nervous system. The body naturally produces beneficial chemicals (called cannabinoids) that bind to those receptors to help maintain a stable internal environment for health, mood, temperature, pain modulation, and more. Interestingly, the scientists found that these chemicals aren’t stored by the body, but are produced as needed and then diminish.

Matsuda and her colleagues not only discovered this key system but also uncovered a surprising link. Remarkably, the cannabis plant produces cannabinoids, some of which are almost natural equivalents of the cannabinoids produced by the body. The best-known cannabinoid is THC, which comes from the marijuana strain of the cannabis plant. THC tends to bind to the ECS receptors in the brain to produce the marijuana high. CBD creates no such psychoactive effect, but by mimicking or improving the body’s natural cannabinoid supply, it can provide beneficial effects, such as relief for pain, anxiety, and insomnia.


There’s a clear reason CBD hasn’t been prevalent in recent decades. Call it guilt by association. CBD is one of more than 100 compounds known as cannabinoids that are found in cannabis plants. But here’s the thing to know: There are many different strains of the cannabis plant. Some strains are high in the chemical compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Legally, in the U.S., any cannabis strain with more than a trace amount (0.3 percent) of THC is considered marijuana, which is well known for its psycho­active effects. But there are other strains that contain high concentrations of CBD with little or no THC. Strains of cannabis with less than 0.3 percent of THC are known as hemp. CBD ­extracted from hemp plants has no psychoactive effects — and this is what’s found in the CBD products that are widely available across the U.S. (See sidebar, “How CBD Works.”)

But while CBD won’t get anyone high or make a user fail a drug test, for almost 80 years it was largely illegal to use or even study in the U.S. simply because it comes from the cannabis plant. Decades ago, when authorities began cracking down on marijuana, the research and distribution of any cannabis medication in the U.S. stopped almost completely. Lawmakers didn’t make the distinction between the hemp strain and the marijuana strain. This is why some experts are still dubious about CBD’s benefits. It just hasn’t been studied nearly as much as other substances sold as health treatments. Many experts do consider it largely safe, but some question whether the benefits reported are from the placebo effect. It was only recently that U.S. law changed, making CBD federally legal. There’s lots of catching up to do. Long-range, double-blind, scientifically solid studies on humans have only just begun.

In young America, hemp and marijuana were both used as healing agents to treat muscle spasms, stomach cramps, and general pain. George Washington grew it.

Unlike most wellness products, which often come from the labs of large pharmaceutical companies, CBD’s rise is a grassroots story. Its popularity starts with people across the world who’ve tried it and swear by it. Cowen & Company, a market analyst, estimates that it will be a $16 billion business by 2025.

Long before the current boom, hemp was already part of the American fabric. For centuries, cannabis had been a folk remedy in various civilizations. This continued in young America, where hemp and marijuana were both used as healing agents to treat muscle spasms, stomach cramps, and general pain. George Washington grew it. Even earlier, on the ships that brought colonists to America, the sails were made of hemp. In fact, hemp had become so important to the British Navy that English farmers were required to grow it among their crops, risking a substantial fine if they didn’t. By 1632, the requirement was extended to the colonies that were just developing in the Americas. The Virginia Assembly decreed “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” Massachusetts and Connecticut had similar laws. Hundreds of years later it would be deemed illegal to grow and study, but for these early American farmers, it was illegal to not grow ­cannabis.


Shop Smart: Not all CBD is created equal

CBD products on a shelf

CBD products generally fall into two categories: ingestibles and topicals. Most popular in the first group are capsules and gummies, as well as tinctures (oils you take by the drop). Balms and lotions are topical treatments applied directly to skin.

A few drops of tincture squirted under your tongue is rapidly absorbed through the mucous membranes there and can enter your bloodstream in less than 10 minutes. If you swallow a CBD capsule or rub a balm on your skin, it takes about 30 minutes to be absorbed. Among CBD users, ingestible products tend to be the preferred option for those seeking relief from problems with sleeping and anxiety. Topicals are a common choice for treating aches, pains, and inflammation because the CBD can be applied directly to the trouble spots.

Regardless of the product type, for anyone considering a purchase of CBD, it’s important to pay attention to a few critical details. For example, some brands list the main ingredient on their labels as CBD oil, while others use hemp extract. They are the same thing. Hemp seed oil, on the other hand, is good for cooking and industrial uses, but contains little or no CBD. Some additional considerations:

Type: You may notice on some product labels that they contain full-spectrum CBD oil, while others are made with broad-spectrum CBD oil or CBD isolate. What’s the difference? Full-spectrum oil comes with a wide range of compounds besides CBD, including healthful nutrients such as fatty acids and flavonoids, and other cannabinoids, including, in many cases, trace amounts of THC. Many experts and CBD proponents believe that these elements magnify the therapeutic benefits of CBD alone, creating an exponential benefit referred to as the entourage effect. Broad-spectrum CBD oil has nearly all of the same compounds found in full-spectrum products, except that it has gone through an extra step in processing to remove even tiny, trace amounts of THC. CBD can be purified even further into a powdered isolate, which blends well with other ingredients, so it’s used in many edible products.

Quality: The fast-growing, loosely regulated CBD marketplace has attracted lots of shady operators and brands with poor quality control, so it’s extremely important to buy from reputable companies. Check the “certificate of analysis” from an independent lab that all quality brands provide on their websites or on request. You can also check the listings of the U.S. Hemp Authority (, an industry group which has developed a certification program requiring brands to meet stringent standards regarding their processes and transparency to consumers.

Cost: The prices on CBD products can be surprisingly steep — even the least expensive items tend to be more than $40. Bargain-basement products can be tempting, but be wary of any that cost dramatically less than comparable items. They’re likely to have cheap fillers and little CBD. Still, you can find good deals, including discounts for first-time buyers, military veterans, and low-income customers.

Dose: Among the many questions still surrounding CBD, one of the most vexing is how much you need to take. At least one top expert says that most people may be getting it very wrong. “In most of the studies, CBD was effective for the rodents at around 10 milligrams per kilogram of body weight,” says Pal Pacher, M.D., Ph.D., the leading cannabidiol researcher at the National Institutes of Health. “At this rate, a person of 80 kilograms [about 175 lbs.] might need a single dose of 800 milligrams.” Most users are getting a whole lot less than that. For this reason, Pacher wonders if much of the positive responses reported around CBD are in fact the placebo effect.

In the meantime, CBD users are relying on a trial-and-adjustment approach to finding the appropriate dose. An often-recommended starting point is 0.5 milligrams of CBD for every kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of body weight for oral doses. (For a 175 lb. person, that works out to about 40 mg.) Topical treatments tend to have higher concentrations of CBD.

Cautions: The World Health Organization studied the risks of CBD use and announced in 2017 that CBD is not likely to be abused and is generally safe for anyone to use. Those conclusions are widely accepted even by skeptical experts. Researchers and CBD users have observed few side effects, which include drowsiness, dry mouth, and, in rare cases, diarrhea for some people taking it orally. Still, if you take prescription drugs, be aware that CBD may hamper their effectiveness. Regardless of your condition, you should discuss using CBD with your healthcare providers before trying it.


The legal restrictions on hemp (the non-psychoactive form of cannabis) changed with the U.S. farm bill of 2018. It is now possible to grow and process it, and researchers in the U.S. are able to study the effects of CBD for the first time. Scientists in other countries had already been investigating CBD for years. Most of the research involved laboratory animals or small groups of people, and almost none of them meet the gold standard of testing (with large-scale, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies) that the FDA requires for approving new treatments. Still, there is encouraging evidence that confirms what many CBD users have been reporting about its value for people with trouble sleeping, anxiety, and chronic pain — or, in many cases, all three.

“I started using CBD oil about four months ago. My issues are depression, anxiety, chronic pain, nerve pain, sleep, and diabetes,” reports Carla Watson, an enthusiastic CBD user. “I noticed after two weeks of using the oil that my sleep was seemingly quicker to happen and deeper. With multiple herniated discs in my back, the CBD oil seems to have eliminated muscle spasms from the equation. In short, I was able to remove Advil and NSAIDs from my routine in favor of CBD oil.”

That’s consistent with what researchers found at The Wholeness Center, a mental health clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado, that focuses on integrative medicine and psychiatry. Doctors there studied 72 adult patients who had documented anxiety or sleep disorder diagnoses. Subjects were given daily doses of CBD for three months and completed monthly sleep and anxiety assessments. After analyzing the results, the researchers reported that anxiety scores decreased within the first month in about 80 percent of the subjects and remained decreased throughout the three months of the study. Sleep scores for two-thirds of the subjects improved in the first month but fluctuated over time.

Another team of researchers reviewed the available published studies on CBD and sleep. After highlighting the small sample sizes and other limitations of the studies, the team reported that CBD appears to “improve sleep quality, decrease sleep disturbances, and decrease sleep onset latency.” In other words, it seems to help people fall and stay asleep.


From The Archive: Hemp: A Profitable Crop

The Post’s sister publication Country Gentleman weighed in on the value of growing hemp

Illustration of a farmer in a hemp field
(Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana)

The culture of hemp in this country has been chiefly confined to the states of Kentucky and Missouri, and unlike any other crops grown in those states, the labor has been performed exclusively by slaves. The process of cutting and breaking hemp is regarded as more laborious than any other operation of American farming, and hence it has been confined to that class of labor.

Hemp is one of the most profitable crops that is grown, and its growth exhausts the land less than that of any other. It may be repeated in the same field for a series of years consecutively, without material detriment to the soil. …

American-grown hemp is superior in strength, and is preferred by the government for U.S. Naval purposes to the imported article. Once introduced into the free states of the great West, I have no doubt that, with the aid of machinery and the energy and enterprise of the people, its growth and manufacture would be found highly remunerative.

—“Hemp Culture in the Free States,” Country Gentleman, July 1, 1863

‘As Easy as Cutting Corn, but Ten Times as Hard’

Hemp production in the U.S. declined at the turn of the 20th century but came roaring back in the teen years

Hemp is no longer a “war baby”; it is a “war man.” Russia and Italy are fast consuming their own hemp, and their exports are so interfered with that the American manufacturer has turned to his own country to buy hemp. Demand has become so great that prices have simply soared, doubling in a year. … Under present methods of production, hemp requires a great amount of manual labor. It grows so thick and fast that it kills every kind of vegetation. A good crop will free the ground of weeds absolutely. It is cut by hand with hemp hooks. An Irishman once said: “It is as easy as cutting corn, but ten times as hard.” A fact that is not generally known is that inside of four months from planting, hemp will grow the strongest and longest known fiber — a single fiber 12 feet long!

—“The Comeback of Hemp” by R.T. Gunn, July 8, 1916, Country Gentleman


In addition to sleep issues, people suffering from anxiety often have trouble managing their emotional health and daily activities. In a study conducted in Brazil, a group of patients with generalized social anxiety disorder were given oral doses of CBD, and researchers then used neuroimaging to measure blood flow in different parts of the subjects’ brains. The scientists were able to see a clear effect. They reported that “CBD reduces anxiety and this is related to its effects on activity in limbic and paralimbic brain areas,” which are the parts of the brain related to emotion and behavior.

“I noticed after two weeks of using the oil that my sleep was seemingly quicker to happen and deeper.”

For those who suffer from chronic pain — caused by injuries, arthritis, or a variety of conditions such as neuropathy — CBD has become an appealing alternative to powerful prescription pain relievers such as opiates. A cream containing CBD applied directly to the skin helped reduce inflammation in laboratory animals showing arthritis-­like symptoms, according to a study published in the European Journal of Pain. In another experiment involving rats, researchers in Italy found that oral doses of CBD oil reduced the effects of “neuropathic (sciatic nerve chronic constriction) and inflammatory pain,” and they state in their report that “the results indicate a potential for therapeutic use of cannabidiol in chronic painful states.”

Some people report no positive effects at all. But for others, pain subsides. “I have personally benefited from a CBD tincture for chronic knee pain. I was initially cautiously optimistic,” says Paul Wright, who recently learned about the compound. “Now going on three months of consistent use (topical and sublingual), and my knee feels better than it has in the past 10 years. I no longer need to wear a knee brace. I recently started putting it on my wrist, which is periodically painful. I dislocated it when I was a teen. It too is now pain-free.”

As more studies are completed and years go by, researchers are sure to learn much more about cannabidiol and its benefits and limitations — for people and animals. Will CBD become a widely accepted natural supplement found in most medicine cabinets to treat pain, sleeplessness, and anxiety? Will it become the perfect antidote to these stressful times? It’s impossible to know for sure. But one thing seems certain: CBD has arrived, and America has noticed.


CBD for Pets

Chronic pain and anxiety are common problems for dogs and cats. Is it safe?

Dog and an eye dropper full of CBD oil

Over 55 percent of the more than 2,000 veterinarians who participated in a 2019 poll by the Veterinary Information Network (an online community for professionals) reported that CBD products were somewhat helpful for chronic pain in pets, and 66 percent said they found CBD somewhat helpful for anxiety in pets. (Most reassuring, 80 percent of the vets reported no side effects in pets except for mild sedation.) The research supporting this practice in pets is even more limited than it is with people. But a study at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine does offer encouragement. Dogs experiencing pain from osteoarthritis were given oral doses of CBD. The researchers noted that 80 percent of those taking CBD showed “significant improvement in pain levels and quality of life without discernible side effects.”


From The Archive: Marijuana

My Travels to Hasheesh Land

Jack London on his experiences with marijuana

Marijuana plant

In past years I have made two memorable journeys into that far land. My adventures there are seared in sharpest detail on my brain; yet I have tried vainly, with endless words, to describe any tiny particular phase to persons who have not traveled there.

I use all the hyperbole of metaphor, and tell what centuries of time and depths of unthinkable agony and horror can obtain in each interval of all the intervals between the notes of a quick jig played rapidly on the piano. I talk for an hour, elaborating that one phase of Hasheesh Land, and at the end I have told them nothing. … Let me talk with some other traveler in that weird region, however, and at once am I understood. A phrase — a word — conveys instantly to his mind what hours of words and phrases could not convey to the mind of the non-traveler.

—“John Barleycorn” by Jack London, April 26, 1913

Reefer Badness

An article in The Saturday Evening Post in 1935 raised concerns about marijuana’s dangerous influence in the wake of Prohibition repeal.

There are states which have no protection whatever against the rapidly growing sale and use of cannabis sativa, commonly known as marijuana or hashish, and which grows as a weed in every part of America, particularly in the West. Pretty Boy Floyd was alleged to have been crazed on marijuana when he aided in what now is known as the Kansas City Massacre. Give a Mexican smuggler enough of it and he will wade the Rio Grande, shooting as he comes, and caring nothing for the fact that he may be outnumbered four to one by border patrolmen. The gangster killer of today rarely takes a shot of cocaine to strengthen his nerves, but smokes a few marijuana cigarettes instead; they have greater effect.

—“Criminal America” by Courtney Riley Cooper, September 28, 1935

This article is featured in the November/December 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. One of the biggest touted benefits of CBD is its impact on inflammation and pain. Studies have shown that using this topically for conditions such as arthritis can quickly reduce inflammation and pain experienced, without side effects.

  2. CBD continues to prove itself as a legitimate, safe, natural alternative to pharmaceutical drugs for a myriad of ailments for both people and animals, and should be explored as such per the individual situation.


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