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Why are cannabis-derived CBD products so popular when there’s not a jot of evidence it does anything for our health?

They’re there, front-and-centre, on the shelves at Boots under a sign saying ‘sleep and relaxation’ – little bottles of tincture, capsules, tablets and creams, all containing the same ‘wonder’ ingredient, cannabis extract CBD.

Perhaps you’d like some Green Stem Seville Orange Flavoured CBD Oil – at £35 for a 30ml bottle? Or some Vitality CBD Muscle Balm, which costs £30 for a 50ml pot? 

If that’s too pricey, as the prednisone dose is veined try the Vitality CBD Oral Spray, at just £14.99.

Online you can get CBD ‘gummies’ – Boots stocks the CBDfx range, which comes in a variety of flavours and cost £37.50 for 60 sweets, along with an astonishing 88 other CBD products, including CBD bath salts and CBD moisturising balm (‘harnessing the power of nature’, apparently). 

Elsewhere, you can get CBD tea, CBD-infused toothpicks, CBD intimate lubricant and even a CBD-impregnated facemask (the CBD inner layer apparently makes the mask less irritating to the skin).

Why, you might ask, would you want any of these things? It’s a good question, and one that’s not massively straightforward to answer.

Today, CBD is estimated to be a £690 million-a-year industry, outselling all other vitamin supplements combined (Pictured: Claudia Winkleman posing with a CBD product from the company Cannaray, for which she is an ambassador) 

A YouGov survey taken in 2019 found that one in ten Britons regularly used products with CBD in them. Today, it’s one in six (file photo of CBD oil)

Until recently, CBD – short for cannabidiol – was a niche natural health product.

It is derived from the cannabis sativa plant but with none of the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the psychoactive element that has a narcotic effect, and its advocates claim it can do everything from treating insomnia, anxiety and joint pain to helping with serious conditions such as high blood pressure and even the eye disease glaucoma.

But in the past few years it has exploded in popularity in Britain. 

Today, CBD is estimated to be a £690 million-a-year industry, outselling all other vitamin supplements combined. (The UK vitamin market is said to be worth an annual £500 million, according to analyst Mintel.)

Demand is said to have soared during the pandemic. A YouGov survey taken in 2019 found that one in ten Britons regularly used products with CBD in them. Today, it’s one in six.

Yet look at the packaging of any of the products that line chemists’ shelves and you won’t find a single clue as to what they are meant to do. There are instructions for usage – ‘take one drop of oil, under the tongue before bed’, or ‘two tablets, once a day,’ that sort of thing – but no solid claims as to the health benefits.

The reason? So far, researchers and manufacturers have been unable to produce evidence strong enough to convince medical regulators in the UK, or anywhere in the world, that off-the-shelf CBD does anything at all.

Claudia Winkleman’s CBD regime just left me feeling queasy 

As hundreds of thousands of Britons take CBD regularly, I decided to have my own CBD experience for a week. I am a sceptical person, and not into natural health. But at 25 years of age, I do suffer from back pain which can make sleeping tough, so I was ready to give something new a try.

I decided to get in touch with one of the CBD companies to try their wares. One stood out: Cannaray, which has Claudia Winkleman, 49, as its ‘brand ambassador’. 

The celebrity shares her CBD regime on the Cannaray website, so I thought I’d give it a go. 

The first product was Night Time CBD Oil Drops (£18), which Winkleman says she loves because ‘number one, it has sexy packaging. And it’s just next to my bed, so it’s super easy’. 

So far, so mysterious. The oil is peppermint-flavoured and the bottle contains 100 doses. Each 50mg of CBD is delivered with a glass pipette under the tongue or in a drink.

Before bed on a Monday night, I squirted the oil under my tongue and held it there for 30 seconds as instructed. I had to stop myself from gagging, and the horrible oily taste stayed well after I’d brushed my teeth.

Cannaray said Winkleman takes the oil to help her sleep, but it didn’t work for me.

Next up was Bright Days CBD Oil Drops, with a juniper and lime flavour. I put the oil in my morning coffee on Tuesday and instantly regretted it. 

It was a sour, greasy mess, and I didn’t feel any different. Finally, Winkleman recommended Bright Days CBD capsules, containing 10mg of CBD.

A tub of 20 costs £18, and Winkleman takes this ‘little magic capsule’ because ‘there’s a lot going on’ in her daily routine (which includes two naps, and a spray tan).

I decided to try these late on a Wednesday afternoon, on a tiring and busy day, in the hope that the capsules would perk me up. But I struggled to concentrate and felt zonked. I don’t know if this was the CBD.

I can confidently say CBD did not help my pains or improve my sleep, or have any other noticeable effect. But I’m glad Claudia Winkleman enjoys hers so much.

Small-scale studies in the US have looked at the effect of taking CBD on anxiety, insomnia, cannabis addiction, even public speaking.

But according to Dr Amir Englund, a cannabis expert at King’s College London, they have not provided enough data to make any conclusive statements on the benefit of CBD. 

‘The majority of studies have either been on animals or in such small groups of people you can’t scientifically prove much. In many of these trials you’ve had participants report that taking CBD has, for example, improved their sleep.

‘But when people take placebos such as sugar tablets during trials, they often report that their health has improved too.’

That’s not to say CBD is useless. In fact, there is evidence that in some specific cases CBD has a positive impact in treating illness.

In August 2019, the NHS gave the green light for severe epilepsy patients to use Epidyolex, which contains CBD, after studies showed that when taken with another drug, clobazam, the cannabis-based medicine cut seizures in some children by 40 per cent.

But, says Dr Englund, this has been one of the few exceptions. 

He points out that the amount of CBD given to epilepsy patients is significantly larger than doses in over-the-counter supplements.

Patients on the epilepsy trial were taking 1,000mg of CBD a day. 

Meanwhile, CBD gummies typically contain about 5mg per gummy. 

Oil drops contain 1mg per serving.

‘It would be like taking 1mg of paracetamol for a headache when the standard dose is two 500mg tablets,’ says Dr Englund.

If you drank two 30ml bottles of Green Stem CBD oil, or ate 500 gummies, you’d be able to take in roughly 1,000mg of CBD. 

But this would make you sick or cause other digestive problems, say experts.

Due to the lack of evidence for over-the-counter CBD, UK health regulators class it as a food, not a medicine. 

And this brings strict limitations on what companies can say their product does.

This hasn’t, however, stopped companies from launching ambitious advertising campaigns to market their products.

Last August, CBD brand Cannaray became the first company to advertise cannabis products on British television. 

Its advertisement featured TV personality Claudia Winkleman, who sheds no light on what CBD does during the 30-second clip, but encourages viewers to ‘just try some’. 

Winkleman, who is also the company’s brand ambassador, has claimed in interviews that she takes CBD every day to help her sleep and to ‘stay calm’.

Alexej Pikovsky, chief executive of Alphagreen, an online CBD marketplace that allows customers to compare products, says many companies use creative solutions to get around the advertising rules.

‘A common trick is to hire social-media influencers to promote the product. The influencer doesn’t need to say anything specific about what the CBD does. You might get a famous person who’s known for talking about the menopause, and that might imply the CBD helps with the menopause.’

Big companies such as Nestlé, pharmaceutical firm GSK and tobacco giant Philip Morris have invested substantial sums into developing CBD products. But are they cashing in because they see the potential financial gain from a product that sells despite having no scientific backing that it works?

Dr Leon Barron, a Hertfordshire-based GP, believes that CBD has a place in modern medicine. 

He said: ‘I have patients as old as 70 and 80 regularly using CBD. Many are at a time in their life where they’re suffering from aches and pains and they’re looking for new ways to treat whatever is bothering them. CBD seems to help with some of those issues.’

The worldwide CBD market could be worth more than £15 billion by 2025, according to some projections.

CBD oil vaping has been linked to outbreaks of severe lung disease among young Americans.

Dr Barron, a member of the Primary Care Cannabis Network, a group of GPs that backs the adoption of cannabis-based medicines on the NHS, says he is convinced that CBD can help with conditions including chronic pain, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

He added: ‘There is a huge amount of research going on. It’s only in recent years doctors have been legally allowed to research cannabis and got the funding to do so, so it’s no surprise we haven’t had any clear conclusions yet.’

However, Dr Barron says, since CBD is not a licensed medicine, he is restricted by the NHS from recommending it. 

‘If patients come in and ask my advice, all I can say is, ‘CBD might help because it has a wide range of effects on the body.’ I can’t say it will help with specific conditions.’ 

Scientists are unsure how CBD affects the body. The prevailing theory is that it interacts with receptors in the body called cannabinoid receptors that regulate bodily sensations such as pain, hunger and fatigue.

Dr Englund, however, says: ‘Many people are not convinced that the small doses of CBD found in the gummies you can buy are potent enough to have any impact on this system.’

But Dr Attam Singh, a specialist at the London Pain Clinic, says: ‘My background is in anaesthesia, and there are anaesthetics we use regularly during surgery which we still don’t know exactly how they work.’

He believes CBD products could offer an alternative treatment to addictive opioid drugs.

According to the UK Health Security Agency, about seven million people are taking high-strength prescription medications such as codeine, tramadol and oxycodone.

Dr Singh – who prescribes CBD as well as medical cannabis, which private clinics have been legally allowed to do since 2018 – said: ‘We need to reduce the level of opioid use in this country. CBD is one possible alternative.’

Dr Leon Barron, a Hertfordshire-based GP, believes that CBD has a place in modern medicine (file photo of CBD oil products)  

There are those who are convinced CBD has helped them. One is Rhiannon McKeown, 29, from Southport, Merseyside, who took opioids for ten years to treat a chronic pain condition.

Rhiannon suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare condition that means the tissue between her bones is fragile.

Her condition kept her in constant pain and left her with migraines, heart arrhythmia and digestive issues. So doctors put her on a ‘concoction of drugs’.

‘By the time I was 15, I was taking tramadol, codeine and even liquid morphine. When I got older, I found it hard to hold down a job because of the impact the drugs were having on my brain.’

As a result, Rhiannon was forced to give up her job as a carer. In 2018, she asked her doctors if she could come off the medications.

‘I didn’t think they were doing me any good. The doctors allowed me to stop, but I remember wondering what my life was going to look like without pain medication.’

At about that time a friend opened a CBD shop in Southport and suggested she tried some. ‘My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, that’s illegal.’ But my friend explained to me that it was completely legal and gave me a bottle of oil and told me to put it in my coffee every day.’

Rhiannon, who lives with her wife Chelsea, says she felt the effect quickly. ‘It felt like my aches were going. I used to always have constant pain in my back, and suddenly I felt that go.’

She says her digestion problems also subsided. ‘I was suddenly eating near-on full meals for the first time in years. I was in so much less pain and discomfort.’

Rhiannon is still taking CBD and says she has slowly upped her dose. She now takes roughly 70mg. She also uses a CBD cream on her joints when these ache. Does it bother her that there is no scientific evidence to support the treatment she takes every day? ‘Not really, no. It’s helped reduce my pain and I’m living a much better quality life. That’s all the proof I need.’

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