I have to admit I was skeptical when I first heard about the possibility that CBD, or cannabidiol, derived from hemp or marijuana might be useful for improving brain health. The CBD craze seems like a lot of hype without a high level of scientific evidence.
And while I’m still not completely convinced that CBD is the wonderful treatment many people hope for, the early research is producing some intriguing results– especially when it comes to helping those with memory trouble.
CBD is one of more than 100 different compounds found in marijuana that are collectively classified as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids include THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the compound in marijuana that triggers the high in people who use it. CBD, on the other hand, does not produce a high.
In addition to being found in marijuana, both THC and CBD are found in hemp. But while THC is the main compound in marijuana, CBD predominates in hemp and concentrations of THC are extremely low.
Another point to make here is that hemp and marijuana are the same species, Cannabis sativa. The difference between the two is that hemp has a lower level of the intoxicating compound, THC. The distinction was essentially created by marketers to try to distinguish their products from the recreational drug. They’re the same plant.
As a matter of fact, in the U.S., hemp has been bred to contain 0.3 percent of THC.1 That’s not enough to promote any kind of high. And while marijuana is grown to be used almost exclusively as a recreational drug, hemp is used to make products like textiles, animal feed, fabrics and paper, along with being a source of CBD.
Whatever name you want to give the plant, the possible medical value of CBD occurs because it does not interact with receptors in the brain to produce the consciousness-altering effects of THC, but it does affect what’s called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The Endocannabinoid System Influences Brain Cell Communication
The ECS is a complex group of specialized fats and receptors that affect nerve function throughout the body.2 Now, we don’t need to get into a detailed explanation of how the ECS works (and researchers are still trying to untangle most of it) but the receptors it contains link up with chemicals made by the body that play key roles in memory, learning, appetite, mood, sleep, heart function and a whole lot more.
What’s important to brain researchers is that the ECS influences how the brain’s neurons communicate with each other and how they form the neural networks that are crucial for a healthy memory.
Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and at the University of Brescia in Italy, who jointly reviewed the research on how cannabinoids could potentially be used against Alzheimer’s, believe a combination of THC and CBD can produce positive effects. They believe the combination of cannabinoids affects the ECS in the hippocampus (an important brain memory center) in a way that helps to maintain the growth and health of new neurons.3
In addition to that, tests in Israel show that “ultra-low” doses of cannabinoids may protect the brain’s neurons from harmful inflammation.4
In another review, Swedish and Italian researchers point out that while use of marijuana seems to hurt memory in young users, after the brain matures around age 25, it may have different, beneficial effects.5 Of course, further research is needed to prove that this is the case and explain the mechanisms that cause any benefits that do occur.
From a lifetime of observation, I think it’s an extraordinarily bad idea for anyone under 25, or at least under 22 or so, to use THC-containing products. It’s been my observation that they are addictive for many, just as alcohol is addictive for many but not for everyone. What’s more, the brain continues to develop and does not reach full maturity until a person’s early 20’s, and it’s unwise to introduce a mind-altering drug to a still-growing brain.
Perhaps most concerning is that marijuana use can trigger the onset of schizophrenia in people with a genetic predisposition to this disease. Schizophrenia typically strikes people in late adolescence. Finally, Dr. Daniel Amen, a famous author and mental health therapist, has scanned thousands of brains and reports that these scans reveal brain deterioration in frequent marijuana users of any age.
Mental Health Improved by CBD
But aside from those caveats about THC, recent studies of CBD suggest further possible benefits beyond memory help, for instance:
- CBD could help relieve stress and anxiety: There have been other studies that suggest CBD could help folks who feel “burnt out” and stressed from their jobs as well as being used for post traumatic stress disorder.6
- CBD can help treat eplipetic seizures: A great deal of evidence documents that CBD can help prevent seizures in some forms of epilepsy.7 In fact, CBD has actually been approved by the FDA for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy.8
- CBD may reduce brain function abnormalities in people suffering psychosis: A study at King’s College London, found that a dose of CBD given to people experiencing psychosis could alleviate much of their distress. Scans of subjects’ brains in this study showed that abnormal brain activity was reduced and brought closer to normal levels.9
- CBD with THC may reduce the severity of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Research at Washington State University found that CBD and THC might reduce OCD problems by 50 percent. However, the researchers caution that their study is very preliminary and that there is very little other research looking into this possible benefit.10
- CBD may lower anxiety and craving in people with drug addiction: A study at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai showed that CBD could reduce anxiousness and desire for drugs in people who were trying to control their drug addiction. The study found that CBD lowered cortisol levels and heart rate that usually increased in response to “drug cues.”11
While it’s true that investigations into CBD’s effects could lead to new treatment breakthroughs for a variety of brain-related health problems, I’m still waiting to see definitive studies into its potential benefits.
What’s more, if you’re considering using CBD as general support for your health or mental capacity, it may not be ready for prime time. So far, I haven’t found any dependable way to know which brand or type of CBD is most useful and the labels on these products have been shown to be very unreliable.
In fact, a study at the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississipi found that out of 25 CBD products analyzed, only three contained levels of CBD that were within 20 percent of what was listed on the label.12
So, even though there seems to be growing evidence of the health and memory benefits of CBD, be very cautious: It’s still a “buyer beware” market.