You might take CBD gummies or CBD oil to help with anxiety or sleep. Experts weigh in on whether it could get you high.
CBD and your mind
Have you ever considered trying CBD oil or CBD gummies for anxiety or as a sleep remedy but were worried about how it might affect your mind? There is still a lot we don’t know about cannabidiol, or CBD, one of the two most abundant active ingredients in cannabis and the related plant, hemp.
But there is one thing we can be pretty sure of: There’s no such thing as a CBD high.
“It doesn’t make you high, it doesn’t induce euphoria, it doesn’t alter perception of our emotional experiences to the same degree that other drugs are going to do,” says Ryan McLaughlin, PhD, an assistant professor of integrative physiology and neuroscience at Washington State University. “It might make you a little sleepy, it might make you have a little bit less anxiety.”
So what’s responsible for the euphoric feeling that draws many people to use cannabis recreationally? That would be delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, until recently a much more famous molecule than CBD.
Tinnakorn Jorruang/Getty ImagesSome things CBD and THC have in common
THC and CBD are the two best-studied cannabinoids found in the Cannabis sativa plant, out of more than 100 discovered so far. While marijuana and its cousin, the hemp plant, are both Cannabis sativa, marijuana has a higher concentration of THC. Hemp is a variety that can’t have more than 0.3 percent THC to be legally grown, and it’s used to make rope, paper, carpets, and more.
Most CBD sold in the U.S. is derived from the flowers, leaves, and stems of industrial hemp plants (hemp seeds don’t naturally contain CBD), so these products have little or no THC.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, University of Indiana researchers isolated several cannabinoids, including CBD, from a red oil extract of Minnesota wild hemp obtained from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Laboratory. Some of the cannabinoids had “marihuana-like effects” in animals.
Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam and his team worked out the chemical structure of the CBD and THC molecules in the early 1960s, and synthesized them in 1965. Both have identical chemical formulas, but the atoms are arranged in different ways and that’s what impacts the brain in different ways.
In later decades, investigators focused most of their attention on THC. Studies conducted in the 1970s established that THC was what was making people high when they used marijuana. Two drugs made from synthetic versions of THC have been approved by the FDA: dronabinol, to treat chemo-related nausea and vomiting and stimulate appetite in AIDS patients with wasting syndrome, and Cesamet, used for similar indications.
Will CBD make you high?
You’ll often find articles referring to CBD as “non-psychoactive,” in contrast to THC, which is technically not true, experts say. Psychoactive means to affect the mind or behavior.
“That’s an unfortunate misuse of the language,” says Roger S. McIntyre, MD, FRCPC, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto. “CBD is absolutely psychoactive. There’s no doubt about it, it does have psychoactive effects.”
But can CBD get you high? Many people say it eases anxiety and helps them fall asleep. But the euphoria—and sometimes, paranoia and even psychosis—brought on by THC are not experienced with CBD used alone. In fact, there’s some evidence that CBD can help balance out the potentially negative effects of THC.
“Cannabidiol is kind of a weird one because it doesn’t really work like THC at all, it kind of almost works in opposition and we don’t really understand quite the mechanism by which CBD is actually working in the brain to have all of these effects that people are claiming that they’re having,” McLaughlin says.
CBD can be derived from marijuana plants, but it tends to have a higher THC level than hemp, so thus cannot be legally sold in many parts of the U.S. (Marijuana can have a THC level around 5 to 25 percent compared to hemp’s THC level of 0.3 percent or lower.)
CBD-related products sold in the U.S. are usually derived from hemp, and unlikely to contain traces of the THC that might make you feel high.
The endocannabinoid system
Research on cannabinoids led to the discovery of receptors in the brain that link up with them, which in turn led to the discovery that our bodies make cannabinoid-like substances called endocannabinoids.
There are two main endocannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. CB1 is found throughout the central nervous system, as well as in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. CB2 is less abundant, and mainly expressed in the immune system.
The best-studied endocannabinoids are anandamide (named for the Sanskrit word for bliss) and 2-arachidnoylglycerol, or 2AG for short.
“We produce it in areas of our brain that are not just random areas, but areas especially relevant for our ability to think, our feeling states, our mood, as well as other things like our appetite, just to name a few,” says Dr. McIntyre.
We know that THC causes a high by binding to CB1 receptors, but we’re still not exactly sure how this works. Some scientists theorize that when THC links to CB1 receptors our brains release a whopping dose of “feel-good” neurotransmitters, like dopamine.
The mechanism of action of CBD in the brain and body is even more poorly understood. It doesn’t bind strongly with either CB1 or CB2. We do know that while CBD may oppose the effects of THC, it may also boost its effects by preventing the liver from metabolizing it.
This is just one example of the “entourage effect,” the compelling—but not scientifically supported—idea that cannabinoids and other components of cannabis, including terpenes and flavonoids, act synergistically.
Can CBD make you fail a drug test?
While CBD won’t make you feel high, it is possible that if you are taking full-spectrum CBD, it may contain enough THC to be detected in a hair or urine test.
If you are concerned about potentially failing a drug test, it may be best to avoid full-spectrum CBD products, which contain a broader range of molecules than other types of CBD, including trace amounts of THC.
Mixed evidence for health benefits
So the answer to the question, “Can CBD get you high?” is, clearly, no. But there is reason to believe it could have mental health benefits, Dr. McIntyre says, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2018 approval of Epidiolex, a synthetic CBD product, for young children with difficult-to-treat epilepsy shows it can be a safe and effective medicine.
But there’s a big difference between prescription CBD and the CBD products that seem to be everywhere you look, experts warn. For one thing, researchers are testing relatively huge doses of CBD, ranging up to 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, or about 3,400 mg of CBD daily. Your typical CBD gummy might contain 5 mg of CBD.
More concerning is the fact that a lot of the time, you really don’t know what’s in a product that claims to contain CBD. The FDA has stated that products containing THC and/or CBD can’t be regulated as dietary supplements because both are already active ingredients in FDA-approved drugs. It’s illegal under the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act to claim that a CBD product can “prevent, treat or cure serious diseases,” and the FDA has issued warning letters to CBD manufacturers making these claims. But there’s no federal regulation that addresses the potency or purity of CBD products.
“We just don’t have quality assurance,” Dr. McIntyre said. “The FDA has a different approach to these types of agents than it does to pharmaceuticals, and a consequence we’re really stuck scratching our heads.”
Some states with medical marijuana programs, including Washington, offer CBD products in dispensaries that have been tested by third-party labs, McLaughlin notes. But otherwise, he adds, “I don’t know if I would necessarily trust what they’re selling to you.”
Lots of enthusiasm, not much evidence
“I would say that at least a third of my patients are taking CBD or smoking marijuana on a weekly basis, at least, and what I do ask all my patients is, if you do take weed or CBD, just let me know,” Dr. McIntyre said.
An important concern with CBD is that it blocks an enzyme in the liver that normally breaks down certain drugs, including many used to treat psychiatric illness, he added. Another key knowledge gap: We have no idea what happens when people use CBD long-term.
“Because of the lack of standardization with CBD, it’s added to the confusion as well as the inability to interpret the literature that’s there,” Dr. McIntyre adds. “It’s also providing yet another reason why we wouldn’t recommend it for the clinical treatment of mental illness right now.”
People 50 and older are the fastest-growing segment of cannabis users in the U.S., McLaughlin notes, and they’re also more likely to be on multiple medications. “Adding CBD on top of other medications might not be completely innocuous,” he says. “It might start to influence the effectiveness of these other medications, making them more or in some cases less effective.”
Bottom line: CBD shows hints of promise for treating anxiety and pain and improving sleep, but the evidence is scanty, and mixed. Experts urge caution due to the lack of data about CBD’s benefits and risks, and the potential for interaction with other drugs. If you do decide to try CBD, keep your doctor in the loop. Also, the FDA “strongly advises” against the use of either CBD or THC by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Next: Is CBG the next CBD?