Opinion: Seniors may need CBD, but we don’t know how safe it is

For many of us, growing old means establishing a close relationship with physical pain. Muscles ache. Joints creak. Arthritis flares up. If the pain becomes too great, your natural instinct is to seek solutions. Those might come from recommendations, the internet or a local store.

There, you might hear about CBD – or cannabidiol – which is derived from cannabis. Currently, there are a variety of CBD oils, gummies and supplements – and claims (thus far unsubstantiated) that they can cure a wide range of maladies, including pain. So, what’s the harm in trying CBD?

As an increasing number of older Americans are turning to CBD products for their health needs, we don’t know everything we need to about this substance, its health benefits and its potential ramifications. What we do know is enough to raise concerns and to insist that barriers currently preventing essential research be removed.

The cannabis plant’s THC compound, which causes a “high,” has undergone extensive scientific study with thousands of research papers on the substance. The compound CBD, now in consumer products which could affect the well-being of millions of people, has received comparably little. Things have improved, research-wise, over the last five years but not to the extent one would expect for an increasingly popular substance marketed for its health benefits.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many incentives for researchers to study cannabis because unregulated products are widely available and many bureaucratic barriers exist. Thus, there are few published papers on the physical impact of different CBD formulations.

We do know that there are potential therapeutic benefits of CBD. Of the research that has occurred, a significant portion documents how CBD can help treat seizures associated with rare forms of childhood epilepsy. There are also significant studies from Germany and Brazil that have investigated whether CBD can help patients with serious mental disorders like anxiety and schizophrenia.

One critical area in which we don’t have sufficient knowledge is dosage. CBD products are usually consumed in high doses that are eliminated from the body by the liver. Seniors tend to take more medications, some critically important, than younger people. A person taking many medicines that need to be metabolized is overworking their liver, making that organ incapable of handling all the assignments sent its way. Thus, a high dose of CBD could potentially dilute lifesaving drugs or, vice versa, could cause a drug to accumulate at dangerous levels.

We also don’t have enough data on the potential side effects of CBD. If your grandmother takes a CBD supplement and begins suffering confusion or memory loss, is it a result of the CBD or the early stages of Alzheimer’s?  We don’t have enough research to draw meaningful conclusions.

We need to be able to optimize the positive role of CBD in meeting health needs. But we must compile enough data and evidence to understand how to avoid negative complications. The FDA approval process can play a critical role, ensuring that thorough research, randomized clinical trials and significant data are used to bring safe and effective CBD treatments to market.

But the FDA can’t do this unless we remove barriers to research. Congress must reduce the efforts necessary to launch research studies and encourage more scientists and academic medical centers to devote time and resources to the subject.

Our seniors have seen enough health risk in the past year. Let’s not put them in greater potential danger by exposing them to untested products.

UC Irvine Professor Daniele Piomelli teaches anatomy and neurobiology and is director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis.

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Author: Daniele Piomelli

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