Is CBD Addictive? [Exploring the Science]


CBD has been everywhere lately. It’s in tons of products, including lotions, creams, tinctures, sprays, and even doggie treats. It’s been touted as an alternative for a litany of complaints, including chronic pain, diabetes, acne and even as a potential cancer fighter. CBD is becoming a hot commodity, and as legalization expands and more studies are carried out, we are sure to see more about this compound.

Things are quickly changing. Most recently, the Farm Bill of 2018 was signed into law, making hemp-derived CBD products legal throughout the country. More people than ever are now experiencing first-hand the possible medicinal benefits that CBD has to offer.

If you’re new to the CBD arena, you may feel that though this information is good to know, it may not be the entire picture. In many ways, you’d be right. CBD is just now entering mainstream consciousness. This may be all well and good, but there is a question many potential users may have: Is CBD addictive? The short answer is no. CBD is a compound that lacks many of the traits necessary to create a full-blown addiction. However, we will parse out how and why this is true.

What is CBD?

To understand why CBD isn’t addictive, you must first know what it is. CBD is one of two major compounds that make up cannabis. The CBD that you may soon find on your supermarket shelf has a distinct difference: It is derived from hemp. Hemp-derived CBD contains little to no THC. THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis. THC is largely responsible for the feeling of users getting “high” or feeling “couch-lock.”

CBD, also known as cannabidiol, works within the body’s endocannabinoid system, or ECS. The ECS is how the body maintains homeostasis. Temperature, mood, pain, and memory are all regulated by the ECS. The ECS plays an important part in keeping us healthy. The ECS includes essential parts of the nervous system, including the brain, as well as receptors and immune cells. The ECS spans both the central and peripheral nervous systems.

The ECS provides the body with compounds that are quite similar to those found in cannabis. These compounds, called cannabinoids, are responsible for helping the body stay at an acceptable range. Due to the similarity in molecular structure, CBD works well with the ECS.

However, CBD doesn’t work directly with the ECS. Instead, CBD influences receptors in other ways, including the 5-HT1A receptor which binds to serotonin. Serotonin is often called the “happy” chemical due to its role in the maintenance of mood.

In other words, CBD isn’t the key that fits into the lock. Rather, it functions more like the mechanisms within the lock itself, making it easier for the key to turn and the door to open. This is why CBD is considered “non-psychotropic.” It doesn’t directly affect cognition. Some emerging studies even indicate that CBD may actually mitigate the psychoactive effects of THC, the compound that makes you feel “high.”

What Addiction is and How It Functions

Understanding why CBD isn’t addictive includes what addiction is and how it functions. Addiction is defined as a long-term disease that features prominent abuse of substances or engagement in harmful activities. Experts state that long-term addiction often creates changes in the structure of the brain. Addiction functions by setting up a reward system. This reward system includes certain pleasure triggers.

When a substance such as caffeine is introduced into the body, it can cause a series of physiological events, including a surge in dopamine, a neurotransmitter that induces feelings of pleasure and contentment. That’s why you may not feel like yourself if you haven’t hadn’t your morning cup of joe.

However, it’s not that cut and dried. Addiction depends on a host of factors. Researchers believe that addiction is often caused by several factors all culminating at once: The speed and intensity of the pleasurable feelings you get from a substance, if you feel the same way each time you partake in the substance, and the behaviors surrounding the experience.

For example, if someone is addicted to alcohol, they may seek out drinks with a higher percentage of alcohol for a quicker buzz. They may enjoy the feeling that comes along with this, whether it is relaxation, numbness, or a false feeling of confidence or bravado. They may also enjoy the build-up to the experience, including the smell of the alcohol, the sounds of glasses clinking or the background noises of a bar or club.

The reward center of the brain processes the feeling of being “high.” The reward centers also work alongside the brain’s memory storage and make connections between the substance consumed and the overall experience.

The brain is then directed to observe cues and signals surrounding the intake of the substance as well. Smell, taste, touch and other sensations are often subconsciously noted and may have significance in the addictive process later on.

Dopamine has a hand in helping to shape how individuals experience their lives, although it’s not the entire picture. Dopamine acts more like the spark but needs a litany of other things to create a raging addiction.

Our need to repeat experiences, even those that are ultimately destructive, is an evolutionary throwback to how we formed early behaviors. Many of these early behaviors, such as sexual intercourse and hiding from predators, helped to perpetuate our species and kept us safe. With addiction, instead of a steady response to day-to-day stimuli, the reward circuit of the brain becomes crowded and overloaded.

There are three stages of addiction that repeat over and over in a cycle. The three stages include an intense craving for the substance or activity, loss of control, and the habitual use of the substance or engagement of the activity despite negative consequences.

Combating addiction is a long and arduous process. Many of those who are addicted to certain substances experience withdrawal symptoms. They also experience emotional and mental stress and often need counseling to cope.

What About CBD?

Addiction is described as a long-term compulsion to engage in activities or substance use despite negative, harmful and detrimental consequences. Researchers believe it is a disorder that begins in the brain and can have an impact on an individual’s life chances.

Individuals battling addiction often display behaviors that disrupt their day-to-day lives. They may find themselves in dire financial straits due to their addiction as well as straining relationships with family and friends. Those with a chemical addiction may build up a tolerance over time. This can often cause them to consume a substance at higher and higher levels, putting some at risk of overdose.

A recent study indicates that CBD may be useful in helping to overcome addiction. The American Journal of Psychiatry reports that individuals with a history of heroin use were given either a placebo (a pill, patch or injection that contains no active ingredient) or an oral dose of CBD.

Participants were then shown videos with both neutral and explicit drug-related cues. The neutral cues were mundane, everyday scenes such as a sunrise while the explicit cues shown to participants depicted drug use or drug paraphernalia.

Researchers then measured the cravings that the participants reported having while watching both the neutral and explicit cues. What they found was that CBD often reduced the cravings for many of the participants.

In a news release, the director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai in New York reiterated CBD’s growing importance to the addiction and recovery research field. “Our findings indicate that CBD holds significant promise for treating individuals with heroin use disorder.”

“A successful non-opioid medication would add significantly to the existing addiction medication toolbox to help reduce the growing death toll, enormous health care costs, and treatment limitations imposed by stringent government regulations amid this persistent opioid epidemic,” she states.

Not only do those battling addictions have to overcome cravings, but they must also contend with withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms are often a result of discontinued substance use. Many of the symptoms can include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, tremors, anxiety, and paranoia.

CBD works to counteract withdrawal syndromes for a number of substances. It also doesn’t engage the reward circuit of the brain. For CBD to be an addictive compound, it not only must engage the reward circuit of the brain (creating a “high”), and it must also create a need (a craving) as well as a continued need to abuse (withdrawal).

Final Thoughts: Is CBD Addictive?

CBD does not activate the receptors responsible for mood and feeling. It does not directly engage the endocannabinoid system or ECS. It instead works indirectly, modifying receptors so that they can more easily accept neurotransmitters.

CBD also helps to mitigate the effects of substances such as opioids. Due to these factors, CBD is not psychoactive. Therefore, it isn’t an addictive substance. In fact, it may be used in the near future to combat substance abuse and withdrawal symptoms. So the next time you’re thinking of taking in a CBD tincture, oil, spray or gummy, you can do so with a bit of reassurance.