CBD: What Parents Need to Know
Parents are giving it to kids to combat anxiety and other problems. But there are risks, and little research to support it.
What You’ll Learn
- Is CBD safe for kids?
- What are the risks of giving kids CBD?
- Can CBD help kids who have mental health disorders?
- Quick Read
- Full Article
- What do we know about CBD?
- Concerns about CBD
- Is CBD safe?
- CBD oil for anxiety
- CBD and autism
- Research boom
These days, you can find CBD everywhere. Some people believe that it can treat everything from chronic pain and cancer to anxiety and ADHD. But is it safe for kids?
CBD is still pretty new, so there’s very little research about its safety or how well it works, especially for children. So far, there’s only one marijuana-derived medication that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s called Epidiolex, and it’s used to treat a rare form of epilepsy in patients who are at least two years old.
Because CBD is so new, there also aren’t a lot of rules about what can and cannot be included in CBD products. So, there’s a huge variety in the quality of products. You may even find different amounts of CBD in different packages of the same product.
Since there isn’t a lot of research about CBD, doctors say there are some risks with using CBD for kids. For example, CBD products may contain things other than CBD, and those things could be harmful. Plus, we don’t yet know if CBD works well with other medications or how much you should give your child.
Although a few studies have found that CBD oil might work for anxiety, they only looked at healthy people who were put in situations that made them anxious. There are no studies yet on people with chronic anxiety. Researchers are also exploring CBD for kids with autism spectrum disorder. The results are good so far, but more research needs to be done before we can know if it’s safe and effective.
CBD is everywhere. From corner stores and bars to medical marijuana dispensaries, it’s being offered for its reputed ability to relieve pain and make people feel better.
Though CBD — full name cannabidiol — is extracted from marijuana or hemp, it doesn’t contain THC, the chemical in marijuana that has psychoactive effects, so it doesn’t make you feel high.
Available in the form of vaping, oils, lotions, cocktails, coffee, gummies — you name it — CBD has been touted as a treatment for complaints as far-reaching as chronic pain, cancer, migraines, anxiety and ADHD. You know it’s gone mainstream when even Consumer Reports has issued guides on how to shop for CBD and tips for safe CBD use.
Not only are adults experimenting with CBD for whatever is bothering them, increasingly parents are turning to CBD to help their kids focus, sleep, calm down and more.
But popular use of CBD is blowing up with very little research into its safety or its efficacy, especially in children. The first and only marijuana-derived drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Epidiolex, is used to treat a rare, severe form of epilepsy in patients two years of age and older. And since cannabis is in the early stages of legalization and regulation, there is a huge variety in the quality and dosage of products — risks associated with using products that have not been vetted by the FDA.
What do we know about CBD?
For millennia, hemp plants have been used for medicinal purposes around the world. In 1851 marijuana was classified by the United States Pharmocopeia as a viable medical compound used to treat conditions like epilepsy, migraines and pain. But since marijuana and cannabis-related products were made illegal in the US in 1970, there has been a dearth of research about either marijuana or CBD. Its classification as a Schedule 1 drug made it nearly impossible to get federal funding to study cannabis.
“The biggest problem is there’s a lot that we still need to know, especially in kids,” says Paul Mitrani, MD, a clinical psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. “In regards to treating mental health disorders in children and adolescents, there’s a lack of evidence to support its use.”
Dr. Mitrani, who is a pediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist, says it’s an area worthy of investigation but recommends that parents wait until further research is done before giving a child CBD.
Concerns about CBD
While anecdotal evidence of the benefits of CBD is common, there are risks associated with using these products, especially in children. Some of the concerns:
- Products are unreliable in delivering a consistent amount of CBD. They could have less, or more, than advertised, and most do not offer independent verification of active contents. Analysis of products for sale show that many do not have the amount of CBD that they advertise. “So you can’t depend on the quality of what you’re getting,” notes Dr. Mitrani.
- How much is absorbed? Very little is known about how much CBD is actually delivered to the brain in a given product. Various delivery systems — vaping, taking it orally, eating it in baked goods, etc. — have different rates of delivery. Even the oils that the CBD is dissolved in can result in varying effects. “Effects can vary a lot based on the delivery system used and the amount people are exposed to can be inconsistent,” Dr. Mitrani says.
- Products may contain things other than CBD, and they could be harmful. Lab testing — which provides information about CBD levels, THC levels (if any), and contaminants in the product — isn’t mandatory for CBD products in every state. Without a CoA (Certificate of Analysis) it’s that much harder to verify the safety of the product. Bootleg CBD may be connected to recent lung illnesses and deaths that have been attributed to vaping. The CDC and the American Medical Association recommend avoiding vaping entirely while the cause of these illnesses is determined.
- CBD may be safe itself, but it may interact with other medications a child is taking, that are also metabolized in the liver.
- If it’s used for sleep, Dr. Mitrani worries that while it may potentially help with sleep, “your child may become tolerant to it and possibly experience worsening sleep problems if stopped.”
- Since CBD use — especially for kids — is a still so new, few people are familiar with dosing for children, so determining how much to give your child would be tricky. Clinical doses versus what you might find at a coffeehouse could vary dramatically.
- The legality of cannabis products and CBD is still murky. CBD derived from hemp is federally legal, while CBD derived from marijuana plants is subject to the legal status in each state — and remains federally illegal. Meanwhile, the FDA issued a statement making clear that products that contain CBD — even if they are derived from legal, commercial hemp — cannot claim to have therapeutic benefits or be sold as dietary supplements unless they have been approved by the FDA for that use.
Is CBD safe?
Last year the World Health Organization, acknowledging the explosion in “unsanctioned” medical uses of CBD, reviewed the evidence for its safety and effectiveness. The WHO report concluded that “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.” Any adverse effects could be a result of interactions between CBD and a patient’s existing medications, the WHO noted.
The report found no indication of potential abuse or dependence. “To date there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
As for effectiveness, the WHO noted that several clinical trials had shown effectiveness for epilepsy, adding: “There is also preliminary evidence that CBD may be a useful treatment for a number of other medical conditions.”
CBD oil for anxiety
In 2015 a group of researchers led by Esther Blessing, PhD, of New York University, investigated the potential of CBD for treating anxiety. In a review of 49 studies, they found promising results and the need for more study.
The “preclinical” evidence (ie from animal studies) “conclusively demonstrates CBD’s efficacy in reducing anxiety behaviors relevant to multiple disorders,” Dr. Blessing wrote. Those include generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and OCD.
The review notes that the promising preclinical results are also supported by human experimental findings, which also suggest “minimal sedative effects, and an excellent safety profile.” But these findings are based on putting healthy subjects in anxiety-producing situations and measuring the impact of CBD on the anxiety response. Further studies are required to establish treatment with CBD would have similar effects for those who struggle with chronic anxiety, as well as what the impact of extended CBD use may be.
“Overall, current evidence indicates CBD has considerable potential as a treatment for multiple anxiety disorders,” Dr. Blessing concludes, “with need for further study of chronic and therapeutic effects in relevant clinical populations.”
CBD and autism
A group of Israeli researchers have been exploring the use of CBD to reduce problem behaviors in children on the autism spectrum. A feasibility study involving 60 children found substantial improvement in behavioral outbreaks, anxiety and communication problems, as well as stress levels reported by parents.
The researchers, led by Adi Aran, MD, director of the pediatric neurology unit at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center, went on to do a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial with 150 participants with autism. In this trial, just completed but not yet analyzed, patients were treated CBD for three months.
In the US, research has been given a boost by changing guidelines and laws. In 2015 the DEA eased some of the regulatory requirements that have made CBD, as a Schedule 1 substance, difficult to study. “Because CBD contains less than 1 percent THC and has shown some potential medicinal value, there is great interest in studying it for medical applications,” the DEA said in announcing the change.
And in approving the first CBD-based drug, Epidiolex, last year the FDA expressed enthusiasm for the research boom that is sure to come, paired with stern words for the flood of marketers of products claiming unsubstantiated health benefits.
“We’ll continue to support rigorous scientific research on the potential medical uses of marijuana-derived products and work with product developers who are interested in bringing patients safe and effective, high quality products,” the FDA pledged. “But, at the same time, we are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims.”
CBD Oil for ADHD? Despite Scarce Research, Patients Are Trying It
Early research suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) may help patients with epilepsy. It is also believed to relieve pain, anxiety, mood disorders, and even acne. But what about ADHD or ADD? So far, research linking CBD oil to ADHD symptom relief does not exist. That isn’t stopping patients from trying it.
Verified Medically reviewed by Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. Updated on January 5, 2022
UPDATE: On November 25, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a revised consumer update regarding safety concerns about cannabidiol (CBD) products. Due to limited research data, the FDA is unable to declare CBD products safe, according to the updated statement. The FDA warns that CBD can cause liver damage, increased drowsiness, and a number of other side effects. The impact of daily CBD use over a sustained period of time is unknown. Likewise, the FDA says there is insufficient research on the effect of CBD on the developing brain, on fetuses, and on the male reproductive system. The FDA has approved only one CBD product, which treats two rare forms of epilepsy. In late November, it issued warning letters to 15 companies for illegally selling products containing CBD.
These days, it’s tough to find an online community or social media group not singing the praises of cannabidiol (CBD) oil. This helps to explain why so many people are exploring its benefits for diseases and disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons to PTSD and, yes, attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Though research suggests that CBD oil may benefit patients with epilepsy and other disorders, any such claims around ADHD are only that: claims.
What Is CBD? Does It Help ADHD?
CBD is a product of the marijuana (cannabis) plant with the high-inducing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) compound removed, which means it is not psychoactive. CBD — often in the form of an oil, a tincture, or an edible — has been rumored to reduce anxiety, a common symptom among those diagnosed with ADHD symptoms. No one, though — not even the drug’s most hardcore advocates — claims CBD is a treatment for ADHD.
According to Mitch Earleywine, professor of psychology at SUNY-Albany and an advisory-board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), there is “no published data, let alone randomized clinical trials, [that] support the use of CBD for ADHD.”
Even so, word of CBD’s potential benefits — proven or otherwise — are often enough to compel some patients with ADHD to experiment. Dr. John Mitchell of the Duke University ADHD Program says that one of his patients, an adult woman with ADHD, tried CBD. Twice. On her own. Without his approval or supervision.
“I bought one vial for $50 that contained 30 gel tablets, and I took all of them over a few weeks,” says Mitchell’s patient, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I’d never tried CBD or any type of cannabis before, and I felt no changes. But I didn’t have any adverse effects, either.”
Anecdotally, this outcome appears common for half of those trying CBD on their own — regardless of the quantity, quality, or type used. The other half claim some positives with regard to CBD and ADHD: “I was able to relax” or “I felt less manic” are common refrains. The problem, as Dr. Mitchell and the broader community of ADHD and CBD researchers point out, is a dearth of studies around CBD. No single research team has yet studied the possible effects — good or bad — of CBD oil for ADHD symptoms specifically.
“There are anecdotes that CBD may help with ADHD,” says Dr. Robert Carson, an assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University who co-authored a 2018 study on the efficacy of CBD on epilepsy, “but this is true for many other symptoms or diseases. Thus, there may be patients whose ADHD symptoms improve after adding CBD, but we cannot generalize that anecdote more broadly. Secondly, the cases we’re most likely to hear about are the one where somebody had a great response — not the 10 who did not.”
“I am not aware of any scientific or clinical data that would speak to the safety or efficacy of using CBD in the treatment of ADHD,” says Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., a member of John Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit. “There is no scientific basis from which CBD should be recommended for use as a treatment for ADHD, nor is there any data that could speak to which product or dose would be appropriate.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends treating ADHD in children and adolescents aged 6 to 18 with FDA-approved medications, plus parent training in behavior modification and behavioral classroom interventions. Likewise, research confirms that “stimulant medications are most effective, and combined medication and psychosocial treatment is the most beneficial treatment option for most adult patients with ADHD.” All ADHD treatment decisions should be made in consultation and coordination with a licensed medical provider.
Is CBD Legal? Is It Safe?
To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form; 10 other states and Washington, D.C., have adopted laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Even so, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers CBD, like all cannabinoids, a schedule 1 drug — making it as illegal as heroin and ecstasy. Despite this, one cannabis industry expert predicts that CBD products alone will comprise a nearly $3 billion market by 2021.
With all that profit on the horizon, why so few studies? At least partially to blame is the legality of CBD; it’s difficult to attain a federal grant to study a federally illegal drug. Politics also come into play, as do lingering public perceptions of cannabis as a gateway drug that may lead to serious mental disorders, lethargy, or both.
Nevertheless, Dr. Mitchell feels that “The perception that [CBD] can have a negative effect has gone down because it’s becoming more available.”
This is not a perception shared by all of Dr. Mitchell’s peers, who note professional resentment and stigma regarding funding for cannabis research. “There’s a lot of political opposition coming from the business and scientific communities,” asserts Dr. Jacob Vigil, director of the University of New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Research Fund. “It’s still highly stigmatized, and we need more studies.”
The studies done on CBD and ADHD to date amount to… practically nothing. One 2011 study showed that, among a group of 24 people with social anxiety disorder, the half who’d taken CBD were able to speak in front of a large audience. In 2015, researchers in Germany examined the relationship between cannabis (CBD and THC) and ADD in 30 patients, all of whom said they experienced better sleep, better concentration, and reduced impulsivity while using the cannabis products. Finally, a 2017 study looking at CBD oil and ADHD in adults found that the oil improved some symptoms, but that more studies were needed to confirm its findings.
The Dangers of Experimenting with CBD for ADHD
The Netherlands’ self-professed “cannabis myth buster,” Arno Hazekamp stated in a recent paper, “While new CBD products keep entering the market virtually unchecked, effective regulatory control of these products has stayed far behind. As a result, unknown risks about long-term effects remain unaddressed, especially in vulnerable groups such as children.”
“During [a person’s] development, I worry about cannabinoids, both CBD and THC,” says UCLA’s Evans. “There are adenosine receptors (and CB2 receptors) on the microglia that are critical for brain development, and CBD inhibits adenosine uptake. This may be a beneficial factor for epilepsy and autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, but who knows for ADHD.”
And while CBD may potentially benefit some patients with ADHD, “One is doing an experiment on oneself by taking CBD for ADHD,” Evans adds. “CBD is anti-inflammatory and I’m not sure there is good evidence mechanistically that for ADHD it might be helpful.”
It’s also unknown how CBD may interact with other medications. “CBD in any form is a drug, and thus has a potential for side effects or interactions with other drugs, specifically those metabolized through the liver [CBD is metabolized by the same enzyme in the liver that metabolizes many other medicines and supplements],” Carson says. “And with other ADHD medications that have sedating qualities, such as guanfacine or clonidine, there may be additive effects that may not be beneficial.”
Also potentially harmful is the non-standard and wildly fluctuating amount of CBD in most CBD products, even those labeled as “pure CBD oil.” Some such products may also contain other ingredients — pesticides, additives, herbs, and even THC. “CBD alone has multiple actions on the cells in the brain and we don’t know which ones are clearly responsible for its known benefits,” Carson says. “It gets more complicated when we have less purified products that also include THC and CBDV [cannabidivarin].”
Dangers may also exist in the method of delivery. CBD is packaged and consumed in oils, tinctures, or edibles — each one absorbed differently by a person’s body. “The labeling in this industry,” says Vigil of UNM, “is horrific.”
‘Natural’ Doesn’t Necessarily Mean ‘Safe’
Once CBD enters the body, no one yet knows how it works. Its long-term effects are a mystery. Exactly how does CBD work — in the brain and over many years? As Dr. Carson bluntly puts it: “We don’t know and we don’t know.”
None of this will stop some people from self-medicating with CBD or trying it on their children. “Apparently there are products offering about 30mg of CBD per dose,” Earleywine says. “I rarely see published work with humans that shows much of an effect below 300mg, which… would get quite expensive… So it’s probably a waste of time and money.”
“The bottom line,” Evans says, “is that there is a dearth of research on all cannabinoid actions — because of its schedule 1 classification — and no clear scientific evidence I can find to endorse or not endorse CBD use for ADHD.”
Perhaps because researchers have documented no negative links between CBD and ADHD, some “patients go through trial and error with CBD,” Vigil says. “First they go on the Internet, where they start with an isolate CBD. Then they try the vanilla products — only to find they get more benefits when they add THC.
“They do that because cannabis is so variable that patients are forced to experiment. Also because clinical trials can’t really tell you anything about the decisions that patients actually make in the real world. And finally because there’s not going to be a uniform solution for everybody.”
“Families need to think very hard about potential risks versus benefits for treating other disorders, including ADHD,” Carson advises. “So please discuss what you are thinking about doing with your child’s physician. In the absence of good data, a dose of 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight per day is where most patients start when using CBD for epilepsy — and this seems to be well tolerated. But if the side effects from any medication are worse than the problem was to begin with, that patient might be on too much.
“I like to remind families,” Carson adds, “that just because something is natural does not mean it is safe.”