UK: CBD Overhyped; Drinks Probably Won't Cure Your Anxiety
There's a big difference between the shop-bought drinks, oils and edibles, and the medicinal products that are backed by science according to UK experts: CBD might not be all it's cracked out to be.
Simon Doherty, Vice Magazine
This article was published on Vice.com on 24 November 2023.
CBD has got to be one of the most hyped health trends of our time.
An estimated six million British people have tried CBD products, and the UK CBD market is projected to be worth £1 billion by 2025. There's CBD tinctures, patches, e-liquids, drinks, edibles, creams, shampoos and gels for everything from anxiety to sleep to muscular pain. You can even buy a CBD drink in Sainsbury’s now, from a company named Trip which calls itself as “the UK's #1 CBD brand”.
On the Trip website it says, “many people use CBD to help settle stress and feelings of anxiety.” It’s basically a can of pop for your mind, body and soul, right? The problem is: There's a huge difference between the CBD you'll find in over-the-counter products like Trip, and the CBD that is actually undergoing scientific research for its health benefits. Indeed, Trip concedes on their own website that their product is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease”.
According to Dr Simon Erridge, a scientist at Imperial College London who researches cannabis-related medicine, food supplement companies should not be associating their products with these health claims. “There is a difference between pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis and what is available at any given wellness store in food products,” he tells VICE.
“The products that are prescribed in the UK [i.e. pharmaceutical CBD] have to be [prescribed by] a consultant and they have to meet a pharmaceutical-grade quality,” Erridge says. For any CBD product to be considered pharmaceutical-grade it must go through extensive testing to prove it meets pre-defined manufacturing and licensing standards. “They have to meet certain requirements in terms of the precision of CBD,” he says.
In simple terms, there’s a world of difference between the pharmaceutical-grade CBD that’s associated with such promising scientific findings, and the stuff you’re getting at your health shop or supermarket. “The [pharmaceutical CBD] are the products on which the research has been done,” says Erridge. “Whereas with wellness products – and in particular when they've been incorporated in foods or substances like coffees or drinks – there isn't any evidence around those, so I think it's a stretch to suggest that they could treat anxiety, for example.”
Even if there was evidence that non-pharmaceutical-grade CBD could help with anxiety, the doses that companies like Trip are selling seem negligible compared to the doses being trialled in scientific studies. A can of Trip from Sainsbury's costs £2 and contains 15mg of CBD. In contrast, this study found that 300-600mg of CBD a day could potentially help with anxiety and stress, but concluded that more research was required.
So, even if Trip sold pharmaceutical-grade CBD, you would have to neck between 20 and 40 cans a day (at a cost of between £280 and £560 a week) to get any of the therapeutic effects described in the study. So, is it fair for Trip to be pointing out the potential anti-anxiety properties of CBD on their website and then offering a non-pharmaceutical product in tiny doses?
We contacted Trip for comment on these issues but, at the time of writing, they are yet to respond.
Their website states that “75 percent of those that use CBD for stress relief experienced benefits” in reference to a study by a clinical researcher called Dr Julie Moltke. As well as conducting research in this field, Dr Moltke is an industry consultant in the UK’s burgeoning medicinal cannabis industry and has written a book titled, A Quick Guide to CBD.
The study being used by Trip to sell their CBD was looking at the self-reported, perceived effect of CBD on stress, anxiety and sleep problems. “[It’s] a study to investigate user patterns and perceived effects of non-pharma CBD, that's all,” Moltke tells VICE via email. However, she notes that: “This is an observational study, hence not a randomised controlled trial (RCT) with a control group getting a placebo.” She adds: “In bigger, expensive RCT studies you can look at effects and take away the placebo effect. I think, based on this study, that more studies are needed to make any further conclusions.”
Trip are by no means the only over-the-counter CBD brand being associated with the health benefits of pharmaceutical grade CBD. Earlier this year, the Evening Standard ran a story that read: “Last year a report by the World Health Organization revealed that CBD may help treat symptoms relating to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, MS, pain, anxiety, depression, cancer and diabetic complications. People suffering from debilitating conditions such as arthritis, sciatica and endometriosis can now even find relief with a set of high-strength CBD patches.”
In the very next paragraph they offered a link to Kloris CBD patches, a product that contains only 16mg of non-pharmaceutical grade CBD. While one VICE reviewer found that Kloris did help her sleeplessness, Kloris confirm on their website that their product is “not a medicine and not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”.
In the US, marrying up medical claims with non-pharmaceutical CBD supplements is a big problem and has been made illegal. “Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of the law,” the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner states, “but also can put patients at risk, as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective. This deceptive marketing of unproven treatments raises significant public health concerns.”
The potential implications of all this goes beyond skimming cash from people in search of genuine health solutions. CBD is a drug with potentially dangerous side effects, but you probably didn’t know that because nobody ever talks about it. Safeena Minhas, a medical researcher at The University of Manchester, tells VICE: “People don't really know what the side effects of CBD are.”
She continues: “What I saw in my research is that the CBD was making some people drowsy, giving them diarrhoea and suppressing their appetite… If you go on a wellness website and look at the CBD gummies, it doesn’t say anything about the injuries that CBD can cause. One study found that CBD in high doses can cause liver damage.”
Both of the experts I spoke to for this piece agreed that there was only one condition that there is good, high-quality evidence to suggest that CBD can treat it, and that’s treatment-resistant epilepsy disorders in children. The NHS is prescribing it for that purpose, but, once again, that’s pharmaceutical-grade CBD – not food supplements.
“If you’re going to take CBD, just make sure you know where you're getting it from and what’s inside the product,” Minhas says, “because I feel like a lot of these wellness companies may be advertising CBD oil, but it may not be CBD oil.” Her suspicions aren’t unfounded: A research paper published this year found that most non-pharmaceutical CBD in the UK did not contain what it claimed to. Their findings showed that only 8 percent of the products they tested had concentrations within 10 percent of the advertised strength.
So, how do you get your hands on the good stuff? Well, as it stands – unless it’s for a child suffering from an treatment-resistant epilepsy disorder – the only way to get proper medical CBD is from one of the 40 private clinics that can prescribe it. At least that way, a doctor will be able to advise you on combining CBD with any additional medication you may be on, and monitor your progress with regards to any side effects. But, as it’s private healthcare, it is not cheap.
In conclusion, says Erridge: “If you are considering CBD as part of your medical regime you should seek out a trained consultant or a clinic… rather than relying upon over-the-counter CBD oils, which don't have the same level of evidence and also aren't held to the same sorts of standards of quality.”
Basically, if you’re hoping that your can of juice from Sainsbury’s is going to cure your anxiety, maybe think again.