What is CBD oil and is it safe?

What is CBD oil, is it legal in the UK and what are the benefits and risks of using it? We asked a dietitian to take a closer look at this food supplement.

Glass bottles of CBD oil with a dropper

CBD oil is increasingly popular, both as a food supplement and as an oil to apply topically to the skin. We asked a dietitian to explain what it is, why people use it and whether it's safe.

What is CBD oil?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid – a chemical compound that acts throughout the body, including on certain parts of the brain, and is becoming increasingly popular in the health world. It comes from the cannabis plant; however, unlike its counterpart, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for the 'high' from marijuana, CBD, derived from the hemp plant, is non-intoxicating and some believe it may have potential health and wellness benefits. Once extracted from the cannabis plant, it is diluted with a carrier such as olive or coconut oil – this improves its bio-availability.

Is CBD oil legal in the UK?

Contrary to popular belief, CBD oil is legal in the UK as it is not a controlled substance. There are, however, strict restrictions over its THC content. CBD oil that isn't medically prescribed can only have a maximum THC content of 0.2%. CBD oil products that have a higher THC content may be available to buy online, but not legally.

A small number of patients in the UK may be prescribed a cannabis-based medicine to treat epilepsy or nausea during chemotherapy. Visit the NHS website for more information on medical cannabis.

What is CBD oil used for?

Supporters of CBD oil believe it may help a number of clinical conditions, including refractory epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and acne. However, further robust evidence is required as much of the research is carried out on animal models.

A systematic review looking at the use of CBD for epilepsy concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support the efficacy and long-term safety of using it to treat epilepsy. It does, however, suggest, albeit in very low numbers, that small daily doses were safe in a small group of adults for a short period of time.

A bottle of CBD oil

There are some suggestions from animal studies that CBD may be beneficial for osteoarthritis, through topical application for inflammation or joint pain.

One study reported reduced pain and muscle spasms in people with multiple sclerosis.

Early evidence looking into the use of CBD in the treatment of anxiety and depression has found some exciting results – although on very small samples. The first study assessed anxiety links with public speaking; it found a very specific dose of CBD (300mg) showed anti-anxiety effects. The second study was a stand-alone case report of one child with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It found CBD oil helped the child safely reduce her anxiety and improve sleep.

CBD may also have the potential to help reduce acne; however, it is important to note that this research is still in its infancy.

For all the above uses of CBD, more human studies are needed to draw conclusive results.

Is it safe to use CBD oil?

If you're considering using CBD oil, you should speak to your GP or other healthcare professional to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for you to do so. 

This is particularly important if you are experiencing any concerning symptoms, if you have any pre-existing conditions or if you are taking any medication including statins, blood thinning medication and calcium channel blockers.

Although the use of CBD is controversial, it does seem to be tolerated by most people. It has, however, caused hypotension and light-headedness in a small number of patients. As it does not contain the THC part of the cannabis plant, the oil will not induce a ‘high’.

CBD oil should not be used by pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Can I buy CBD oil safely?

Most large health food stores will stock 'pure' CBD oil. However, as it is classed as a 'food supplement' rather than a 'medicinal product', it isn't regulated in the UK. This means you cannot know for sure that the product you buy contains the 'active' ingredients at the amounts listed on the label. Furthermore, the product may contain contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals and other elements. For this reason, the NHS highlights there is no guarantee that these products will be of good quality or provide the intended health benefits.

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This article was reviewed on 4th December 2019.

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Have you tried CBD oil and if so, did you find it beneficial? Let us know in the comments below.

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