Is CBD a Placebo? Here’s What You Need to Know

By Harris Wheless
Sebastian Herrmann, Unsplash

There’s no question about it: the CBD market is a hard space to navigate. Because it’s unregulated, there is a large disparity in product quality, label accuracy, and conscientious business practices. You’ll find all kinds of products—oils, tinctures, edibles, capsules, etc.—offering relief from symptoms and conditions like anxiety, nicotine withdrawal, chronic pain, sleep deprivation, multiple sclerosis, and addiction. You might also find anecdotal evidence online from people who said CBD didn’t work for them. So, what’s the deal with CBD? Does it work?

Some suggest that CBD is a placebo, or the new “snake oil,” and that it may have some psychological benefits but no physiological effect. With placebos, the brain convinces the body that its symptoms are improving, even when a substance has no actual healing power. In many human studies, CBD was tested alongside a placebo, and was found to have an effect on whatever symptoms the study was testing for. With side effects of CBD seeming rare, this cannabis compound is generally considered safe to consume, and it may even bring therapeutic benefit to users. To provide a little more background, here are some symptoms and conditions CBD may offer relief from, and the science behind it.

Anxiety or Stress

Studies have shown that CBD may have a calming effect in anxiety-inducing situations. In one study, researchers gave 60 people one of the following: a placebo, the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin, or one of three doses of CBD (100, 300, or 900 mg) before the subjects performed a public speaking task. Those who took the medium dose of CBD exhibited lower anxiety than those who took the placebo, or the other CBD dosages. The Klonopin worked at a similar level as the medium CBD dosage.

CBD might have comparable effects to FDA-approved prescription medication if the dosage is optimized for the individual user. The average user probably won’t take hundreds of milligrams of CBD in a day. CBD dosage partially depends on body weight and metabolism, and you should begin with lower doses before moving up in increments. For instance, according to this dosage guide, someone who is 200 pounds might take 20–33 mg as a starting dose. CBD users taking it for anxiety may find more success taking lower doses multiple times a day. Dosing carefully and consistently will be important in finding the dosage that works for you.


In a study published in January of this year, researchers found that CBD had some therapeutic benefits in the treatment of insomnia and as a general sleep aid. The study featured 72 people, most of whom were given a 25 mg dose of CBD in capsule form in the evening, or they were administered a larger dose if their condition called for it. About two thirds of the patients experienced improvements in sleep. With more investigation into optimal dosage per individual, this number could perhaps be even higher.

Related: CBD for Sleep

CBD has the potential to help you fall asleep more easily, as well as increase sleep duration. When taking this hemp extract for sleep, it may be beneficial to take one larger dose of CBD before bed. However, with dosage, it’s best to start small and work your way up. So take some, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, take a little more the next night and so on until you find a CBD dosage with results.


Clinical trials have demonstrated safety and effectiveness in pain treatment with CBD. For instance, one 2010 study of 177 patients with pain from advanced cancer found an extract with THC and CBD to be about twice as effective as an extract of THC alone. This study not only suggests that the presence of CBD may improve the ability of a product to treat pain, but it may also lend credence to the entourage effect. This is the idea that whole plant therapy, or hemp extracts that contain CBD (as well as other cannabinoids and terpenes) relieve symptoms more effectively.

CBD can be a viable alternative pain treatment for those who are suffering from muscle, joint, or back pain, as well as inflammation or pain from arthritis. Research indicates that CBD enhances serotonin levels to better regulate pain. CBD can also exert anti-inflammatory effects through the same pathways that trigger inflammation in the first place. For more effective relief from certain types of pain or inflammation, you should consider the application method used—for instance, CBD topicals like balms, gels, and lotions that are applied directly to the affected area may work better to relieve your symptoms.

So what next?

In the CBD space, there are a lot of brands to choose from, some of which are legitimate and some of which aren’t taking proper safety precautions or may be selling counterfeit products. Cannabidiol (CBD) has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration so there is little accountability in the market. That’s why it’s good to seek out reputable brands who sell the kind of product you’re comfortable taking, and who provide clear information about the product on the label.

It’s important to note the difference between THC and CBD: both are cannabinoids that come from the cannabis plant, but only the former produces a psychoactive effect. CBD is completely non-psychoactive, so it doesn’t get you high, but it can cause sedation when taken in high doses. Most CBD products, including CBD gummies, are derived from hemp, which unlike the marijuana plant will have less than 0.3% THC.

It’s not uncommon to feel no effect from CBD the first time you try it. The next step is to incrementally increase your dosage until you’re getting the relief you need. If you’re also taking a prescription medication, seek advice from your doctor about possible drug-on-drug interactions. If you take the necessary safety precautions and do research on what products are most likely to work for your condition, you’re more likely to find something that gives you proper relief and makes you feel better.

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