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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

Quick Read

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.
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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.

Research boom

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.”

What You Need to Know (And What We’re Working to Find Out) About Products Containing Cannabis or Cannabis-derived Compounds, Including CBD

The FDA is working to answer questions about the science, safety, and quality of products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, particularly CBD.

  • Cannabis is a plant of the Cannabaceae family and contains more than eighty biologically active chemical compounds. The most commonly known compounds are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the component that produces the “high” associated with marijuana use. Much interest has been seen around CBD and its potential related to health benefits.
  • Marijuana is different from CBD. CBD is a single compound in the cannabis plant, and marijuana is a type of cannabis plant or plant material that contains many naturally occurring compounds, including CBD and THC.
  • The FDA has approved only one CBD product, a prescription drug product to treat seizures associated with Lennox Gastaut syndrome (LGS), Dravet syndrome (DS), or tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) in people one year of age and older.
  • It is currently illegal to market CBD by adding it to a food or labeling it as a dietary supplement.
  • The FDA has seen only limited data about CBD safety and these data point to real risks that need to be considered before taking CBD for any reason.
  • Some CBD products are being marketed with unproven medical claims and are of unknown quality.
  • The FDA will continue to update the public as it learns more about CBD.
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Potential harm, side effects and unknowns

  1. CBD has the potential to harm you, and harm can happen even before you become aware of it.
    • CBD can cause liver injury.
    • CBD can affect how other drugs you are taking work, potentially causing serious side effects.
    • Use of CBD with alcohol or other drugs that slow brain activity, such as those used to treat anxiety, panic, stress, or sleep disorders, increases the risk of sedation and drowsiness, which can lead to injuries.
    • Male reproductive toxicity, or damage to fertility in males or male offspring of women who have been exposed, has been reported in studies of animals exposed to CBD.
  2. CBD can cause side effects that you might notice. These side effects should improve when CBD is stopped or when the amount used is reduced.
    • Changes in alertness, most commonly experienced as somnolence (drowsiness or sleepiness).
    • Gastrointestinal distress, most commonly experienced as diarrhea and/or decreased appetite.
    • Changes in mood, most commonly experienced as irritability and agitation.
  3. There are many important aspects about CBD that we just don’t know, such as:
    • What happens if you take CBD daily for sustained periods of time?
    • What level of intake triggers the known risks associated with CBD?
    • How do different methods of consumption affect intake (e.g., oral consumption, topical , smoking or vaping)?
    • What is the effect of CBD on the developing brain (such as on children who take CBD)?
    • What are the effects of CBD on the developing fetus or breastfed newborn?
    • How does CBD interact with herbs and other plant materials?
    • Does CBD cause male reproductive toxicity in humans, as has been reported in studies of animals?

Unanswered questions about the science, safety, and quality

You may have noticed that cannabidiol (CBD) seems to be available almost everywhere, and marketed as a variety of products including drugs, food, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and animal health products. Other than one prescription drug product to treat seizures associated with Lennox Gastaut syndrome (LGS), Dravet syndrome (DS), or tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) in people one year of age and older, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any other CBD products, and there is very limited available information about CBD, including about its effects on the body.

The FDA recognizes the significant public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, particularly CBD. However, there are many unanswered questions about the science, safety, and quality of products containing CBD. The agency is working on answering these questions through ongoing efforts including feedback from a recent FDA hearing and information and data gathering through a public docket.

Despite the 2018 Farm Bill removing hemp — defined as cannabis and cannabis derivatives with very low concentrations (no more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis) of THC — from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act, CBD products are still subject to the same laws and requirements as FDA-regulated products that contain any other substance.

The FDA is concerned that people may mistakenly believe that using CBD “can’t hurt.” The agency wants to be clear that we have seen only limited data about CBD’s safety and these data point to real risks that need to be considered. As part of the drug review and approval process for the prescription drug containing CBD, it was determined that the risks are outweighed by the benefits of the approved drug for the particular population for which it was intended. Consumer use of any CBD products should always be discussed with a healthcare provider. Consumers should be aware of the potential risks associated with using CBD products. Some of these can occur without your awareness, such as:

  • Liver Injury: During its review of the marketing application for Epidiolex — a purified form of CBD that the FDA approved in 2018 for use in the treatment of two rare and severe seizure disorders — the FDA identified certain safety risks, including the potential for liver injury. This serious risk can be managed when an FDA-approved CBD drug product is taken under medical supervision, but it is less clear how it might be managed when CBD is used far more widely, without medical supervision, and not in accordance with FDA-approved labeling. Although this risk was increased when taken with other drugs that impact the liver, signs of liver injury were seen also in patients not on those drugs. The occurrence of this liver injury was identified through blood tests, as is often the case with early problems with the liver. Liver injury was also seen in other studies of CBD in published literature. We are concerned about potential liver injury associated with CBD use that could go undetected if not monitored by a healthcare provider.
  • Drug Interactions: Information from studies of the FDA-approved CBD drug Epidiolex show that there is a risk of CBD impacting other medicines you take – or that other medicines you take could impact the dose of CBD that can safely be used. Taking CBD with other medications may increase or decrease the effects of the other medications. This may lead to an increased chance of adverse effects from, or decreased effectiveness of, the other medications. Drug interactions were also seen in other studies of CBD in published literature. We are concerned about the potential safety of taking other medicines with CBD when not being monitored by a healthcare provider. In addition, there is limited research on the interactions between CBD products and herbs or other plant-based products in dietary supplements. Consumers should use caution when combining CBD products with herbs or dietary supplements.
  • Male Reproductive Toxicity: Studies in laboratory animals showed male reproductive toxicity, including in the male offspring of CBD-treated pregnant females. The changes seen include decrease in testicular size, inhibition of sperm growth and development, and decreased circulating testosterone, among others. Because these findings were only seen in animals, it is not yet clear what these findings mean for human patients and the impact it could have on men (or the male children of pregnant women) who take CBD. For instance, these findings raise the concern that CBD could negatively affect a man’s fertility. Further testing and evaluation are needed to better understand this potential risk.
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In addition, CBD can be the cause of side effects that you might notice. These side effects should improve when CBD is stopped or when the amount used is reduced. This could include changes in alertness, most commonly experienced as somnolence (sleepiness), but this could also include insomnia; gastrointestinal distress, most commonly experienced as diarrhea and/or decreased appetite but could also include abdominal pain or upset stomach; and changes in mood, most commonly experienced as irritability and agitation.

The FDA is actively working to learn more about the safety of CBD and CBD products, including the risks identified above and other topics, such as:

  • Cumulative Exposure: The cumulative exposure to CBD if people access it across a broad range of consumer products. For example, what happens if you eat food with CBD in it, use CBD-infused skin cream and take other CBD-based products on the same day? How much CBD is absorbed from your skin cream? What if you use these products daily for a week or a month?
  • Special Populations: The effects of CBD on other special populations (e.g., the elderly, children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women).
  • CBD and Animals: The safety of CBD use in pets and other animals, including considerations of species, breed, or class and the safety of the resulting human food products (e.g., meat milk, or eggs) from food-producing species.

Unproven medical claims, unsafe manufacturing practices

Some CBD Products are Being Marketed with Unproven Medical Claims and Could be Produced with Unsafe Manufacturing Practices

Unlike the FDA-approved CBD drug product, unapproved CBD products, which could include cosmetics, foods, products marketed as dietary supplements, and any other product (other than Epidiolex) making therapeutic claims, have not been subject to FDA evaluation regarding whether they are effective to treat a particular disease or have other effects that may be claimed. In addition, they have not been evaluated by the FDA to determine what the proper dosage is, how they could interact with other drugs or foods, or whether they have dangerous side effects or other safety concerns.

Misleading, unproven, or false claims associated with CBD products may lead consumers to put off getting important medical care, such as proper diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care. For that reason, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the best way to treat diseases or conditions with available FDA-approved treatment options.

In addition to safety risks and unproven claims, the quality of many CBD products may also be in question. The FDA is also concerned that a lack of appropriate processing controls and practices can put consumers at additional risks. For example, the agency has tested the chemical content of cannabinoid compounds in some of the products, and many were found to not contain the levels of CBD they claimed. We are also investigating reports of CBD potentially containing unsafe levels of contaminants (e.g., pesticides, heavy metals, THC).

CBD products are also being marketed for pets and other animals. The FDA has not approved CBD for any use in animals and the concerns regarding CBD products with unproven medical claims and of unknown quality equally apply to CBD products marketed for animals. The FDA recommends pet owners talk with their veterinarians about appropriate treatment options for their pets.

The FDA’s top priority is to protect the public health. This priority includes making sure consumers know about products that put their health and safety at greatest risk, such as those claiming to prevent, diagnose, treat, mitigate, or cure serious diseases. For example, the agency has warned companies to stop selling CBD products they claim are intended to prevent, diagnose, treat, mitigate, or cure serious diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, psychiatric disorders and diabetes. While we have focused on these types of products, we will continue to monitor the marketplace for any product that poses a risk to public health, including those with dangerous contaminants, those marketed to vulnerable populations, and products that otherwise put the public health at risk.

Evaluation of the regulatory frameworks

The FDA is Continuing to Evaluate the Regulatory Frameworks for Products Containing Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds

The FDA continues to believe the drug approval process represents the best way to ensure that safe and effective new medicines, including any drugs derived from cannabis, are available to patients in need of appropriate medical therapy. The agency is committed to supporting the development of new drugs, including cannabis and cannabis-derived drugs, through the investigational new drug and drug approval process.

We are aware that there may be some products on the market that add CBD to a food or label CBD as a dietary supplement. Under federal law, it is illegal to market CBD this way.

The FDA is evaluating the regulatory frameworks that apply to certain cannabis-derived products that are intended for non-drug uses, including whether and/or how the FDA might consider updating its regulations, as well as whether potential legislation might be appropriate. The information we have underscores the need for further study and high quality, scientific information about the safety and potential uses of CBD.

The FDA is committed to setting sound, science-based policy. The FDA is raising these safety, marketing, and labeling concerns because we want you to know what we know. We encourage consumers to think carefully before exposing themselves, their family, or their pets, to any product, especially products like CBD, which may have potential risks, be of unknown quality, and have unproven benefits.

Our Consumer Update includes a practical summary of what we know to date. As we learn more, our goal is to update you with the information you need to make informed choices about CBD products. Also, as the regulatory pathways are clarified we will take care to inform all stakeholders as quickly as possible.