CBD Oil Review: Useful Sleep Aid Or Overhyped Placebo?

photo of three of the CBD oils and cream I tested for this review

Two minutes ago, I squeezed a pipette of CBD oil under my tongue. And I’ll be sharing my thoughts on any effects I notice as I write this article.

Why am I doing this? The simple answer is because I’ve been testing CBD recently to see if it has any impact on my sleep. The sedative effect has been so minimal, however, that I’ve started daytime testing to see if it’s more noticeable.

So today I thought it would be interesting for you, the reader, if I kept a running diary whilst I type up the final version of this article.

(five minutes since taking the CBD: no effect yet, but it could take much longer to work)

CBD pings my sleep radar

As an insomniac who writes about sleep, the recent CBD boom was pinging loudly on my radar for some time.

The thing is, the four different brands of CBD I’ve tried so far just haven’t done anything miraculous for my sleep.

There have been a few times where I felt like there was perhaps a mild relaxing effect at night. But it was only mild, so I can’t be sure if it was the CBD, the placebo effect or just feeling soporific after a particularly awesome home-cooked dinner.

This leads to the kind of dilemma I imagine many writers are faced with when they work on a review: how do you fairly and honestly describe a product that you’re just not that sure about? More on that in a bit.

(10 minutes: thinking, typing and sitting all feel normal)

The problem with CBD advertising

It’s well known that some companies make exaggerated or even false claims in their advertising. The FDA has written to many CBD companies warning them about misleading therapeutic claims on their websites. You can find copies of their letters on the FDA website here.

As an example, here’s a quote from a recent letter to Nutra Pure LLC:

It is unlawful under the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 41 et seq., to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made.

The letter also includes quotes from the Nutra Pure LLC website which the FDA was unhappy with, such as:

For many, CBD holds the answers to treating depression… For Alzheimer’s patients, CBD is one treatment option that is slowing the progression of that disease.

They certainly aren’t the only company to make claims like this. And I’ve found many websites, physical stores and products that claim CBD will improve your sleep, among other benefits.

So if it didn’t do much for my sleep, is it just me? Is it the type or amount I took? Or is the advertising and general buzz about CBD leading to inflated expectations?

The problem with reviews

Time for a little honesty.

Like many bloggers, I make a living from commissions I receive if readers buy products through some (though not all) of the links in my articles. It’s usually a correspondingly small commission, but can be more significant for more expensive items.

With the sheer number of people willing to buy expensive CBD, there’s a potential goldmine that many reviewers have already rushed into. 10% commission for $100 bottles of CBD oil that only lasts a week or two adds up over time…

(in the photo below is the first CBD oil I tried – Populum)

populum cbd

The thing is, how many of the authors of articles with titles like “the best CBD oils” have personally tried all 10 on their list? The answer is impossible to know, but I doubt many of them have.

Welcome to the digital wild west of internet marketing. If this comes as a surprise to you, don’t feel too out of the loop; even reviewers like me can get sucked into believing the hype that other writers have created.

For me personally, the combined effect of seeing respectable looking CBD outlets popping up everywhere along with very positive advertising and reviews gave me high hopes that it would do wonders for my sleep.

(20 minutes: nothing of note to report)

How do you write about products when it’s not love at first sight?

Personally, I don’t feel so morally dyslexic when I publish a comparison review with a reasonable combination of excellent and not-so-excellent products that I’ve personally used.

But what do you do when there isn’t even a single clear winner among multiple brands?

One option is to immediately publish a damning verdict and begrudgingly forget about that particular income stream.

But if it’s not so clear-cut, as is the case with CBD for me, you can try it again, try different types, dosages and timings, get second opinions and do some in-depth research to find out if it’s a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

I’m not against CBD, I just have reasons to be skeptical

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against CBD or deny that it has great potential in certain situations.

There’s already one area where it’s been approved for use by the FDA because of strong evidence that it works. As the FDA website says in a news article about Epidiolex:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved Epidiolex (cannabidiol) [CBD] oral solution for the treatment of seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, in patients two years of age and older. This is the first FDA-approved drug that contains a purified drug substance derived from marijuana.

I’ll be delighted if it’s repeatedly proven in future scientific research (of which a lot is in the pipeline) to work for more of the many conditions that people are trying it for – especially sleep, which is my main interest.

I just have two issues with CBD at the moment:

  1. It hasn’t worked so far for me personally.
  2. The more I research the current advertising, manufacturing standards and actual scientific evidence that it works, the more I worry about how right it would be to promote commercially available CBD products on my blog.

(30 minutes: nothing notable, though I did just catch myself relaxing in my chair and staring into space while thinking deeply about the next section!)

Is there scientific evidence that CBD helps you sleep?

Where do all the advertising claims come from? Why is the internet full of articles glorifying the many benefits of CBD? Why do so many people take it?

The answer, I suspect, lies partly in word of mouth. Some people do seem to find it works for them; whether it’s a genuine effect or the placebo effect is often irrelevant to the person whose pain, anxiety or insomnia is lessened.

But I think there are cases where research studies are used to back up arguments in ways that perhaps aren’t totally justified.

2019 anxiety and sleep study

Where sleep is concerned, for example, I’ve seen many articles online that reference the same 2019 study.

In that study, the researchers looked at the anxiety and sleep of 72 people who had been given CBD. They found that 79.2% of people had lower anxiety scores during the three months of the study. They found that 66.7% had better sleep scores during the first month.

Now, I’ve seen this used as evidence that CBD can help with short-term sleep problems, and that it can help you sleep better if anxiety is the reason you can’t sleep.

But the study authors themselves note that the sleep scores fluctuated over time, and they do not conclude that it displays promise as a sleep aid – only as a “tool for reducing anxiety in clinical populations”.

They also admit notable limitations to their study, such as that all of the participants were from an outpatient psychiatric unit and that there was no comparison group.

2017 sleep research study

Another study that’s regularly referred to is a review from 2017. The authors note that research into CBD “may have therapeutic potential for the treatment of insomnia”. They also say that it holds promise for REM sleep behavior disorder and excessive daytime sleepiness. But again, they note that much more research is needed.

But really, as far as I can tell, there’s a distinct lack of solid research showing that CBD helps with sleep problems. And if it does, what type of sleep problem it’s most likely to help with (there are more than 80 sleep disorders), what dosage is required and if it will work only in the short-term or on an ongoing basis.

As for the research into all the other benefits, that’s beyond the scope of this article. But I highly recommend checking the reality behind the research rather than accepting the aggressive marketing currently surrounding CBD.

As Dr. Jordan Tishler from the Harvard Medical School says:

There is still much we don’t know. But aggressive marketing, hype, and word of mouth have made CBD like a drug version of the emperor’s new clothes. Everyone says it works, but lab studies suggest that it’s really not what people think.

And as I’ve seen first hand, it seems the emperor’s new clothes are widely available for sale…

How I discovered CBD was everywhere in New York and New Jersey

Let’s go back in time for a moment, with a look at why my sleep radar lit up like a Christmas tree when I first walked around Manhattan and Jersey City in 2018.

CBD was literally everywhere.

A stand selling CBD skin cream in the middle of a mall with the kind of giant glossy photo of a beautiful woman you’d usually associate with women’s clothing brands.

CBD skin cream stall in newport mall

Those over the top trucks parked around Times Square selling CBD candy that did little more than erode both my teeth and New York holiday budget.

Coffee shops with an extra line just under the price of adding soya or almond milk to your latte: “Add CBD to any drink for $2”.

Entire shops in Greenwich village dedicated to selling luxury CBD products, complete with pretty candles and chandeliers.

artemis cbd shop

From garishly-painted trucks to hipster hangouts to enticing beauty products, it’s everywhere. And that in itself has the potential to make people believe it works.

(45 minutes: still nothing in particular happening. However, the sun came out and I immediately relaxed a little as its warmth washed over me. It’s reminded me that when you feel relaxed, you generally know about it…)

What is CBD anyway and what’s all the fuss about?

If you’d told people my age in the 1990s in London that 25 years in the future people would buy expensive products derived from the cannabis plant, but with the ‘fun bits’ taken out, you would have done well on stage at a pub comedy night.

But it makes sense when you understand the difference between a product containing extracted CBD or one with the THC found in standard marijuana.

The cannabis plant contains over 100 chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. One of those is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the principal psychoactive cannabinoid and the one that gets you ‘high’.

Cannabidiol (CBD), however, doesn’t give you that high sensation, but does supposedly have other benefits. A lot of research is still needed to work out how many of those benefits are genuine though, along with other important questions like why it doesn’t seem to work for everyone and what dosage is needed.

CBD oil, then, is made by extracting it from the Cannabis plant and diluting it in a carrier oil, such as coconut or hemp seed oil. The result is a product that appeals to people who want the potential benefits of the natural cannabis plant without all the crazy stuff that it’s more famous for.

(One hour since taking CBD: I haven’t noticed anything other than a couple of brief moments of sitting back in my chair, which is normal for me anyway. If there is a relaxing effect happening because of the CBD, it’s happening at a level that’s too subtle for me to be sure about)

Is CBD legal to buy?

The legality of CBD is an interesting point to discuss. For starters, you’d need to check the legality in your country, and even down to the state level in the United States.

Let’s take a look at the two countries where I spend my time: the United Kingdom and the United States.

United Kingdom legality

In the United Kingdom, it’s legal to sell and buy CBD products, as long as they have less than 0.2% THC content and the THC cannot easily be separated from it.

Importantly, manufacturers are not allowed to make claims about its medical benefits unless they have a medical license for it (which virtually none have). You can find out more about the legality on the BBC website.

United States legality

The CBD explosion in the United States is largely attributable to a change in the law at a federal level in 2018 – the agricultural improvement act of 2018 (aka the Farm Bill). As the FDA summarizes:

…the 2018 Farm Bill removed 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.

This, along with changes in state laws, means that in many states it’s legal as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC (similar to the UK law). However, the matter is made more confusing by the fact that state laws apply, and not all agree that CBD should be legal.

Interestingly, the FDA clearly states on their website that CBD is still not allowed to be added to food or sold as a dietary supplement:

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 currently illegal to market CBD this way.

I believe this is the key reason that restaurants, coffee shops, and others have been receiving warning letters or inspections from the New York department of health in an attempt to clamp down hard on CBD edibles.

If you decide to buy CBD in the U.S., my advice is to check what the latest federal and state laws are. It’s also important to be sure that the CBD you buy actually has the legal amount of CBD, and not unwittingly buy a product that’s technically illegal.

And that leads me to another interesting, and important, question: if it’s not regulated in the U.S., how do you know you’re getting what you pay for?

(two hours later: I’m now fairly sure that CBD had no real effect on me)

Research shows you can’t always trust the listed ingredients of CBD products

When I read this eye-opening research study from 2017, I realized my job of coming to a reasonable conclusion about CBD was going to be even harder.

The team of researchers in the U.S. analyzed the CBD concentration of 84 products from 31 companies. And they found a large number had a different amount from that on the label.

Here are some of their key findings:

  • 30.95% were correctly labeled with the amount of CBD they contain.
  • 42.85% were under labeled and had more CBD than on the label.
  • 26.19% were overlabelled, meaning they had less than the amount promised.
  • CBD oil was the most likely form to be accurately labeled – 45%
  • THC was detected (up to 6.43 mg/mL) in 18 of the 84 samples tested.

The authors of the study report that in some cases, then, you might not be getting the amount of CBD needed to have an effect:

Of tested products, 26% contained less CBD than labeled, which could negate any potential clinical response.

They also had an interesting point to make about the higher CBD or THC levels in some:

Underlabeling is less concerning as CBD appears to neither have abuse liability nor serious adverse consequences at high doses; however, the THC content observed may be sufficient to produce intoxication or impairment, especially among children.

This is why the researchers are firmly behind the idea of implementing manufacturing and testing standards, and regulatory oversight – something I believe the FDA is working towards.

As for my tests and review, it also raises the possibility that the four brands I’ve tried so far just weren’t the best. It seems unlikely, but it’s not impossible that I just had four duds.

My opinion of CBD’s effect on sleep, based on personal experience

I think you can tell from my notes that my ‘in the moment’ daytime test didn’t yield any exciting results.

Writing this article has now extended over the weekend as it has taken longer than I anticipated. And on Saturday, I tested the same CBD oil again, but still had no effect from it.

As I said at the start, I’ve now tested a range of CBD products. Mostly oils, but also a cream and some edibles. The oils are the only ones that perhaps gave a mild relaxing effect.

(Below is the latest CBD sleep cream I’ve tried. It has a nice lavender smell and is nice as a hand cream, but didn’t affect my sleep)

cbd sleep cream

When I’ve referred to a ‘mild effect’ in this article, what I mean is this: on a few occasions that I’ve taken CBD oil, I felt perhaps a small increase in relaxation when sitting on the sofa watching a movie, lying in bed at night or just going about my day (I’ve tried it in different scenarios).

But it was so mild, it was similar to the effect of drinking certain herbal teas or taking a herbal sleep aid. And even those might be the placebo effect at work!

Although commercial sleep trackers can’t be completely relied on for accuracy, I still like to use them to monitor for any significant changes in my sleep. And on the nights where I’ve taken CBD, the resulting sleep tracking data has been pretty much identical to nights without it.

I’ve also spoken to many people who’ve tried the same CBD products as I have, and they have all agreed that it hasn’t lived up to the hype. “It did nothing” is the most common statement. The second most common is a variation of “I maybe felt something the first time I took it, but I didn’t sleep any better”.

Hardly conclusive, but it’s enough for me to draw a temporary conclusion.

CBD so far does not work for me in a way that would justify the price. And therefore, I won’t be promoting any companies that sell it on my website.

That might change in the future: I’m still open to trying different brands. But for now, I feel a responsibility not to join the goldrush at the combined expense of my integrity and my readers’ bank accounts.

I just hope more substantial research is done in the future, and that CBD is regulated in a way that means you know you’re getting your money’s worth.

Your thoughts about CBD

Have you tried CBD, or have an opinion about it? Let me know any thoughts you have in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “CBD Oil Review: Useful Sleep Aid Or Overhyped Placebo?”

  1. Because of the dearth of choices, I only tried CBD oil that was recommended by other users. I tried 3 kinds- including one from a farmer colleague and had zero results. I also tried 3 different kinds for my anxious dog. And one chewable for my arthritic old dog. None of us had any results- either positive or negative. That experiment was costly.

    1. Hi Lola
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience. It sounds very similar to mine! It’s a shame that CBD is so expensive, as you point out, as it means that it’s not just a waste of time for some people, but also a considerable waste of money. I imagine those who it works well for will be happy, but for the rest of us, it’s not cheap to keep trying different brands in the hope that one works.
      Regards
      Ethan

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