One of my earliest memories is of pain. My teenage years were filled with hospital appointments, calendars circled with dates for surgery. At 13, over the course of one night, my spine twisted like a plumbing trap to more than 80 degrees. At one point, a piece of hardware from the titanium rods supporting my spine pierced through my skin. It was like a bomb going off in my bones.
Later, a pain-induced blackout on a beach with friends resulted in kidney failure. Then, there were the menstrual cramps and chronic fatigue. Later still, a suspicious lump on my thyroid gland that turned out to be cancerous resulted in surgery from ear-to-ear – like a permanent smiley face on my neck – and a heavy blast of radiation. Over the last 27 years my body has been rendered useless and immobile. I know what it feels like to hit peak on the pain-o-meter.
In a bid to regain some autonomy over my pain – and to rid my body of years of toxins – I’ve spent the last few years seeking out alternative pain management treatments. I’ve tried reiki sessions and mindfulness, pilates and swimming, non-medicated pain patches and hot water bottles. Then I found CBD (cannabidiol) oil. Not to be confused with medical cannabis, CBD is made from hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant which is low in the high-inducing THC. In the right dose and form, CBD really can help manage – not cure – a huge range of health issues, including chronic pain.
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“It’s probably a little bit of a false claim to say that CBD is a sole cure for chronic pain,” says scientific advisor to The Drug Store Dr Julie Moltke, whose book A Quick Guide To CBD was published in June and is a practical guide for anyone interested in learning more about CBD. Studies show that CBD interacts with our endocannabinoid system – the body’s own anti-depressant – to restore balance and reduce inflammation, and so if you take it in high enough doses you get an “anti-inflammatory effect throughout the whole body”, explains Dr Moltke. “It can also be used for endometriosis… and it’s even been medically proven to help the symptoms of epilepsy,” she continues.
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CBD won’t mend a broken bone, it won’t fix my crooked spine. But for some, it’s the holy grail of anxiety solutions. And for others, like me, it can offer a brief moment of respite from the sting of sciatica, or the dull ache of period pains.
Here, a guide to using CBD to treat pain effectively – with the caveat that one should always seek advice from a medical professional.
The A To Z Of CBD
Not all CBD oils are created equal, nor do they perform in the same way. At present there are two camps of non-medicated CBD (meaning CBD without THC): full spectrum CBD and CBD isolate. Full spectrum is when the entirety of the hemp plant – stalk, seeds, roots leaves – is used to produce the final product. Cannabidiol is one of at least 140 different cannabinoids found in hemp plants, each with its own chemical properties, so with full spectrum CBD, the oil is mixed with other cannabinoids from within that plant. “That can often include a tiny bit of THC,” says Olivia Ferdi, co-founder of Trip. “In theory, it means you’re getting the benefit of other cannabinoids working in tandem with the CBD in different ways that aren’t necessarily fully understood yet, but studies suggest they have positive effects.”
On the other end of the spectrum is isolate CBD, which is where only the CBD cannabinoids have been extracted. In essence, it’s a more refined version of CBD and is beneficial for those who want to measure their full intake of CBD.
Ferdi, whose millennial pink bottle of 300mg orange blossom CBD was among the first I tried during lockdown and is great for CBD newcomers, compares the two ends of the CBD spectrum to eating an orange versus taking a vitamin C tablet: “We know a vitamin C tablet will do a great job and you’re going to absorb it well but, maybe the orange is better for you because of the fibres and fruit sugars it contains.”
Broad spectrum CBD, then, falls in the middle of both isolate and full spectrum CBD. Neither camp has been proven to be right or wrong.
“Medicinal cannabis is very good at decreasing pain that’s coming from the central nervous system,” Dr Moltke tells me of her experience of treating chronic pain patients with CBD and THC (the principal psychoactive component of cannabis). “We know for a fact the endocannabinoid regulates pain and pain perception. When we use the whole plant, you can decrease pain – especially chronic pain, also called neuropathic pain.”
Find The Right Brand For You
From chewing gum to bath bombs, balms to serums, there is truly a wealth of CBD products to choose from ( the CBD market is set to reach $1.8 billion by 2022, up from half a billion in 2018). I first tried oral oil because it has a faster absorption rate. Trip’s selection appealed to me because of the natural flavours (elderflower mint, peach ginger, lemon basil), and the oils proved calming and tasted pleasant. The very process of taking CBD oil is, in itself, a form of self-care. It’s important to let the oil sit under your tongue rather than haphazardly chucking it back, as Ferdi explains: “Holding an oil in your mouth for 60 seconds – whether you realise it or not you’ve basically just created a self-care ritual. It’s so hard to not talk in that one minute! It’s a moment of stillness.”
Celtic Winds medium strength 5 per cent CBD oil is a good middle-of-the-road option, if you can get past the earthy taste. A small amount of Greenheart’s Full Spectrum Hemp Homogenised Oil goes a long way, and was effective for defusing a muscle spasm in my back when used in conjunction with over-the-counter pain relief.
Pollen’s Powerbank CBD Gummies didn’t prove particularly fruitful for my stiff joints, but provided a little midday pep and curbed my workday stress (chewing distracts one’s mind from Zoom). The limoncello packaging brightened my desk, too.
The Ohana skincare range combines gentle and caring skincare ingredients with the soothing benefits of CBD. When applied to the face with a cold jade roller or Gua Sha stone, I found the All-In-One Wonder Balm to be a welcome bedtime rescue. Similarly, Oto’s rosemary and peppermint Focus Roll-On provided targeted light relief, and the scent made me feel grounded.
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“It’s about finding a consistent source that’s good quality,” remarks Ferdi, whose premium brand Trip has witnessed a 420 per cent increase in sales since strict social distancing was introduced. Ferdi’s advice rings particularly true when you consider that more than half of the most popular CBD oils sold in pharmacies, health stores and online have been found not to contain the level of CBD promised on the label.
“In general, I would go for a broad spectrum product: a product which contains all the different cannabinoids,” Dr Moltke says. “It’s worth trying a reliable brand. If they do have good delivery methods, that’s a plus.”
Keep A Pain Journal
To echo Dr Moltke, CBD is not the final solution to pain management, but can greatly reduce inflammation and reduce muscle fatigue – and yes, it helped soothe my quarantine aches and pains, too. Building CBD into my daily schedule allowed me to become more mindful of my body, and to take heed of when it needed rest. A daily pain journal helped me to distinguish the niggles from the serious spasms, menstrual cramps from a leaky gut. I learned to listen to signals and know when CBD alone would be enough, versus when back-up was required.
Overall, there is a startling absence of information online when it comes to exact CBD dosing recommendations, but through research I’ve learned that a reasonable and feasible dose of CBD is around 10-40 milligrams per day. My dose amounts ebb and flow until I feel I’ve reached my sweet spot.
A word on CBD and addiction: while it’s possible to build a tolerance to CBD – similar to caffeine and sugar – it’s not possible to overdose. Similarly, research suggests CBD doesn’t cause any cognitive effects – unlike THC, where we know smoking cannabis can cause cognitive decline and memory impairment defects. As Dr Moltke explains: “This is not something we see with CBD. We do however need to get real long-term data. We don’t have any consistent data on very long term effects, but as far as we know – and the World Health Organisation has echoed this – CBD is safe to use.”
Find Your Community
My initial impulse to lump CBD in with other dubious “alternative” medicines was rooted in my own lack of knowledge and understanding. For beginners, Suzanne Gatt’s easy listening podcast is informal but packed with information. Similarly, Dr Moltke’s The Holistic Medicine Podcast debunks common myths, and delivers bite-sized snippets backed up by science and research.
And to the sceptics? When you’ve endured constant pain for a long time, you’ll try anything after a while. CBD is, for me, a gentle elixir that helps extinguish the burn of nerve pain and lessens the churn of anxiety. And if it’s good enough for Queen Victoria’s menstrual cramps, then it’s good enough for mine.
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