This article originally appeared on VICE Tonic US.
A few months ago, during a pit stop at my local café, I noticed a new item on the menu: CBD cold brew.
Now, I normally avoid cold brew, which transforms me into a jittery, agitated wreck. But I had heard about the potential calming properties of CBD—short for cannabidiol, the non-intoxicating compound in cannabis—and wondered whether it would smooth out the caffeine’s stimulatory effects. Minutes later, I was cautiously sipping the supposed elixir.
For the rest of the day, I was focused and alert, but not anxious like I get when I down regular cold brew. Was the CBD working?
The same question stands for the bevy of other foods and beverages CBD has shown up in lately: chocolate-dipped pretzels, kombucha, salad dressing, even fried chicken, just to name a few. Some studies have suggested that pure CBD oil could be promising for certain health conditions, but none have looked at food products that contain CBD, leaving their effectiveness up for debate.
Does CBD in food even work?
First things first: It may be uber-trendy in wellness circles, but CBD “is not a panacea,” says James Giordano, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Jeff Chen, director of the University of California Los Angeles Cannabis Research Initiative, agrees. So far, the FDA has approved a CBD drug for a rare, severe form of epilepsy, while animal studies and “very, very preliminary” human trials suggest CBD also has therapeutic potential for other conditions, such as anxiety and insomnia.
CBD, part of a class of compounds known as cannabinoids, acts on the same receptors as endocannabinoids, neurotransmitters your body naturally synthesizes. These receptors, found in the brain, make up the endocannabinoid system, thought to be involved in regulating numerous biological functions, including mood, sleep and pain. CBD can take different routes through the bloodstream to get to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, depending on how you consume it. When inhaled or applied under the tongue, for instance, CBD reaches the brain pretty quickly, Giordano says. But when ingested as an additive to food or drink, it takes longer. Before getting absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream, CBD gets metabolized in the liver, which inactivates some of it—meaning the amount that gets to the brain ends up being much smaller than the amount ingested.
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Chen notes that the dose of CBD shown to help ease pediatric epilepsy, schizophrenia, or anxiety in clinical trials was at least several hundred milligrams a day, although in one study, 15 milligrams of CBD seemed to boost alertness. This suggests that each condition or purpose requires a different dose of CBD. The dose in many products skews low, though: A single Hemp Bombs CBD gummy (one serving) packs only 15 milligrams of CBD for instance, while a can of Queen City CBD Seltzer contains 5 milligrams of CBD hemp oil per 12 ounce serving. When contacted for comment, a rep from Queen City cited the aforementioned (very preliminary) human research and pointed out that CBD comes without the side effects that pharmaceuticals can have. Are the doses people are taking even effective for what they’re trying to treat, though? “We don’t know,” Chen says.
That said, if you swear by your nighttime CBD gummies, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re just experiencing a placebo effect. “Some people are very sensitive to [CBD], and even low doses of it can have an effect on them,” Giordano says. He adds that the sweet spot for most people lies somewhere between one and around 5 or 6 milligrams for every 10 pounds of their body weight. For a 100-pound woman, then, 10 milligrams is “a good low dose, and she may be sensitive to that effect.”
What factors influence whether a CBD food product works?
As explained above, the dose you take plays a big role. The higher the dose of CBD, the greater its absorption—that is, the amount that enters your bloodstream—and the sooner and more strongly you could feel its effects, Giordano says.
Product preparation makes a difference, too. “Putting anything in a liquid form versus a solid form will tend to increase its absorption,” Giordano says. Meanwhile, temperatures above 355 degrees Fahrenheit can degrade terpenes—active ingredients in CBD that enhance its effects—he adds. (Smoking and vaping involve temperatures that evaporate terpenes, which converts them into a gaseous state but doesn’t degrade them.) On the other hand, exposing CBD oil to direct high heat—putting it over an open flame, for instance—can degrade its composition and lower its potency.
Whether you take the compound on an empty or full stomach also matters. A recent analysis found that the latter seems to enhance absorption. Since CBD is fat-soluble, it probably gets absorbed into the bloodstream along with the fats in the meal you just ate, Chen says. It depends, though. Giordano notes that the large fat globules from an especially rich, greasy meal can coat the inner lining of the gut, or mucosa, lowering absorption of CBD into the bloodstream.
Finally, your unique biology also comes into play. Everyone metabolizes and absorbs CBD at different rates, and they may respond differently to it once they metabolize it, with some experiencing heightened effects, and others lowered effects, Giordano says.
Can ingredients that you add the CBD oil to make a difference?
Since CBD is fat-soluble, consuming it in, say, olive oil, will generally allow more of it to cross your gut mucosa and enter your bloodstream, Giordano says. He adds that emulsified fat, or fat broken up into small droplets—found in foods like chocolate and mayonnaise—could do the same. Emulsions consist of fat blended with an ingredient that fat doesn’t dissolve in, which breaks up the fat into small droplets. These droplets easily pass through the mucosa, and CBD may join them for the ride.
Some ingredients could amplify the feel-good effects of CBD. Sugar and even the mere taste of chocolate can produce feelings of pleasure on their own in some people, but if you’re seeking the same sensation from CBD, then a sugary and/or chocolatey CBD-infused concoction could be “a double whammy,” Giordano says.
How might caffeine have affected my experience of CBD in that cold brew? Since caffeine speeds up metabolism, and the body absorbs caffeine pretty quickly, you could get “a synergistic effect” from the CBD and caffeine, Giordano says. As for why the cold brew didn’t leave me frazzled, the CBD might very well have countered the effect of the caffeine, he says. Everyone is different, though—for others, caffeine may counter the calming effect of CBD. But again, since CBD foods and beverages have yet to be tested in human studies, we can’t say for sure how specific types of products or their ingredients influence the effects of CBD, Chen says.
Is it safe to eat food with CBD in it?
Even if a product’s label says it contains 20 milligrams of CBD and zero contaminants, CBD products aren’t FDA-regulated, so they aren’t required to undergo testing to back up a manufacturer’s claims. That means “people should really take the time to research the products and the companies behind them,” Chen says. That research could be a simple Google search to see if anything negative has been reported about it. He also recommends consulting with your doctor if you’re already taking medications to ensure the CBD won’t react badly with them.
If you’re new to CBD, Giordano says to “start low and go slow.” Start with one milligram of CBD for every 10 pounds of your body weight. Give it 30 to 40 minutes to kick in. If you don’t feel anything, wait a day and take the same dose. "Sometimes your body has to actually acclimatize to the CBD on board,” Giordano says.
If you still don’t feel anything, wait the next day and up your dose to two milligrams of CBD per 10 pounds of body weight, and so on. Remember that for most people, the maximum dose is about 5 to 6 milligrams of CBD per ten pounds of body weight. Beyond that, you’ll likely excrete lots of CBD because you can’t absorb anymore, and you could experience negative effects, such as fatigue, disorientation and anxiety, Giordano says.