CBD Makes Everyone Feel Better—But No One Knows Why

"Someone said, I’ve got 99 problems, and CBD fixes 86 of them," recalls Bethany Gomez, managing director of Brightfield Group, a market research firm that specializes in cannabis and CBD. She’s referencing an often-Instagrammed meme, but if you talk to anyone who swears by CBD, they’ll probably say something along the lines of that quote. Jay-Z would likely turn his nose up at this lyrical adjustment of his iconic 2003 song, "99 Problems." But, then again, even Jay-Z is involved in the CBD industry. CBD, which stands for cannabidiol, is the non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana and hemp, and it’s 2019’s go-to wellness panacea.
Technically, CBD can only definitively “fix” one problem: epilepsy. In 2018, Epidiolex, a drug containing a purified marijuana-derived form of CBD, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for preventing seizures caused by two rare forms of pediatric epilepsy. All the other uses for CBD are up in the air as far as their effectiveness. That fact hasn’t stopped people — 22 million consumers in 2019 — from experimenting with variations of this drug to self-treat symptoms ranging from endometriosis to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraines, insomnia, generalized anxiety disorder, and more.
Some promising research on humans has demonstrated CBD’s ability to reduce social anxiety, psychotic symptoms in people with schizophrenia, and cravings for heroin — but the results of these studies haven’t been conclusive, explains Jeff Chen, MD, MBA, and the executive director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. This lack of data, however, hasn’t stopped this new industry from flourishing.

Cannabis’ standing in the cultural zeitgeist shifted from a stigmatized drug to a powerful plant containing one of the most beneficial molecules of all time to those who swear by it.

To understand why CBD is everywhere right now, you have to go back and look at the Farm Bill of 2018. Every five years, our government passes a new Farm Bill or Act, which covers everything from farming, food, forestry, and rural communities. Last year, however, this Bill was particularly contentious due to President Trump’s tariff fight with China, which resulted in farm workers seeing huge declines in the profits from their products. (The Asian nation is one of the largest importers of U.S. agriculture.) While this Bill mainly covered things such as insurance protections for farmers and funding for farmers markets, it also differentiated hemp, a variety of cannabis, from the illegal drug marijuana, and reclassified it as an agricultural commodity, subsidizing some of the money farmers were losing due to tariffs.
At the same time, the Goopy world of wellness exploded into a $4.2 trillion dollar industry. Women — who historically have been disbelieved by doctors and have had their chronic pain conditions dismissed — started to seek out alternative ways to treat their ailments. Enter crystals, Whole30, celery juice, elaborate self-care routines, sleep coaches, infrared saunas, and of course, CBD. Cannabis’ standing in the cultural zeitgeist shifted from a stigmatized drug to a powerful plant containing one of the most beneficial molecules of all time to those who swear by it. But when it comes to self-experimentation in wellness, it doesn’t really matter that nobody knows how or if CBD actually works. This willingness to believe the unknown and the 2018 Farm Bill created the perfect storm for enterprising individuals to sell us anything and everything embossed with the three-letter acronym. Before the Bill, CBD was promoted exclusively through word-of-mouth advertising, and sold through independent channels. Now, it’s on track to becoming a $23 billion dollar industry by 2023.
I first heard about CBD last year from a friend who, like me, gets chronic migraines. She suggested I try a high-potency, full-spectrum CBD tincture from a company called Lazarus Naturals, which provides discounted CBD products for veterans, individuals on long-term disability, and low-income households. It helped her significantly reduce the frequency of her headaches, so I was hopeful it would work for me, too. Surprisingly, it kinda did. No, it hasn’t quelled my pain completely, but it does help reduce some of the physical discomfort and accompanying anxiety I get whenever a migraine strike. I enjoyed it so much, I started trying other CBD brands even when I didn’t have a migraine — such as Lord Jones Royal Oil Tincture and Sunday Scaries Vegan Gummies — and found that, with regular use, I’m calmer and have an easier time focusing.
April Ann, a 31-year-old from Los Angeles, started taking CBD at the end of the day to wind down after work and high-intensity workouts. As a "naturally high-energy" person who drinks a lot of caffeine, but isn’t into drinking alcohol, she liked that CBD made her feel relaxed, but not sluggish or intoxicated. "I can tell the CBD is working," she says. "I'm not looking at email or thinking about work, but just sitting down and watching my favorite TV shows, and not worrying about the stress of the day or what I have to do tomorrow."
Elizabeth Andreassen, a 26-year-old in New York City, started using a CBD tincture during a period of time when she was experiencing anxiety, and feeling a constant sinking feeling in her stomach. "That went away within minutes after taking the tincture drops under the tongue," she shares. Megan Tatem, a 27-year-old also in New York, says she can tell when CBD is working because she’s "no longer moody." There have also been reports of people ditching their prescription psychiatric and pain medications for CBD without the blessing of their physicians.
But others find that CBD doesn’t affect them at all. Jay K.*, a 34-year-old real estate broker in New York says he purchased CBD oil and capsules at a trendy coffee shop, and felt nothing, even after taking seemingly high doses. "After several attempts at feeling something and seeing how it was marketed, I realized it was snake oil," he says. I fed a few Lord Jones CBD Gumdrops to my mom, who suffers from chronic insomnia, and not only did it not help her sleep issues, but she also felt nothing.

If someone really believes that CBD is “working” — whatever that means for them — then they’re more likely to experience the effects.

Researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact physiological mechanism that makes CBD "work" so well for so many issues, explains Flávio Kapczinski, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton McMaster University. In simplest terms, it’s thought that CBD acts by modulating the endocannabinoid system, which is a complex network that’s responsible for maintaining bodily homeostasis and modulating pain and inflammation. Cannabinoids, such as CBD, can bind to specific endocannabinoid receptors and make you feel different ways. "There are a lot of expectations about the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids," Dr. Kapczinski says. "These expectations are probably inflated right now."
Exaggerated expectations and the placebo effect can go a long way, though. The different ways that people use CBD are all over the place, and there are no codified dosage recommendations, so all people can really rely on to show that CBD is effective are their own experiences. If someone really believes that CBD is “working” — whatever that means for them — then they’re more likely to experience the effects. And if people really believe that they’re feeling the results that they want to, then they’re more likely to trust the product and tell their friends.
There are very few side effects associated with taking CBD, even in large doses. And, in the short term, Dr. Chen from UCLA says it’s relatively safe. But there are still a lot of question marks, including how CBD affects pregnant people, whether CBD interferes with other drugs, and especially the potential long-term effects. (CBD has been shown to boost the effects, good and bad, of other drugs.) Some people argue that humans have been safely using cannabis for decades, so in theory CBD should be fine, too. But that’s not an easy comparison to make.
"CBD sold online or in stores isn’t regulated by any state or federal agency," Dr. Chen says. "So, it really could have a very different amount of CBD in it that’s labeled, or it could contain contaminants." (The Food & Drug Administration, which evaluates and approves all prescription drug products, hasn’t approved any other CBD products besides Epidiolex. However, the organization "recognizes the significant public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, particularly CBD.")
As a CBD-user, you have to be careful about the products you’re choosing to ensure that you’re getting the safest, most effective form. Dr. Chen recommends buying CBD from larger retailers that you already trust — such as Whole Foods, CVS, Walgreens, or Kroger — so you have some level of certainty that these stores have done their due diligence to make sure the products they're selling are as safe as can be and properly dosed. Or, if you have the option in your state, go to a legal cannabis dispensary to get CBD, because those products are regulated tightly. "If you want to buy outside those parameters you have to do your own research," he says. (Obviously, letting your doctor know that you’re using CBD can be beneficial as well.)
There’s no telling what the future of CBD will look like. Hemp farmers and CBD manufacturers are still waiting for official rules and regulations around hemp growing and cultivation to be finalized and released from the USDA. There are also different rules for different strengths of CBD in different states, and while it’s technically legal to travel across state lines with hemp-derived CBD products containing less than 0.3% THC, the TSA only recently said it’s cool to travel with it.
CBD brands meanwhile are waiting eagerly to see how states harmonize with the upcoming USDA regulations, and how that change affects the way they do business, explains Dylan Summers, Director of Government Affairs for Lazarus Naturals. "The ideal scenario is that we'd like to keep the trend alive for as long as possible," he adds. "We’re certainly in a good spot; sales are climbing."
These sales are climbing mainly due to millennials and Gen Z, who are buying and using CBD with great fervor and reporting even greater success. In the end, in today’s hectic and manic world, it simply makes them feel better. That there’s little scientific proof to back up their own experiences is irrelevant. These demos will only get older and develop more ailments that’ll need some sort of treatment. For now, CBD seems to fit that bill.
* Name has been changed to protect identity.

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