Can CBD Help With Cravings - Drugs, Alcohol, Food, or Othewise?
Lots of information based on current research.
A big part of the picture is cravings.
We're going to move past the "Oh, I just need more iron" to the biology in the brain.
There's interesting new information we can actually use to combat cravings whether it's for cocaine or that donut that keeps calling.
We'll focus more on drug craving but food uses the same machinery for compulsion and craving so it's a win-win.
Parts of the brain that light up and build connections are directly tied to this process and we can zero into neurotransmitters as well.
We're going to make sure the tricky parts are accessible and easier to understand.
We'll cover these areas:
- What drives cravings in the brain
- Neurotransmitters and the brain
- Dopamine and cravings
- Tolerance and cravings
- Can CBD help with cravings
- How much CBD for cravings
- What's the best CBD for cravings
Let's get started.
What drives cravings in the brain
Believe it or not, it goes back to survival.
Fortunately, our predecessors 30,000 years ago didn't have cocaine or chocolate shakes growing out in the wild.
Unfortunately, we have the same biological blueprint.
There's an interesting study of a tribe in Mexico that runs all the time. Literally miles a day.
When they move to the cities (increasingly happens), their weight immediately explodes up to the point where health is severely affected.
Their genetic blueprint (honed over generations) was crafted around running non-stop in mountains. It's ill-suited to life in a city.
There's a complex pathway in the brain called the reward circuit which is tasked with guiding us to things that improve our chance of survival.
This is generally food, water, and sex but since human behavior so complicated, it can easily be extended to social interactions and hierarchy or even taking on pain now (exercise) to feel better later (summer bathing suit season - essentially social hierarchy and sex).
Various hormones filter into this process (check out CBD and perimenopause weight gain for an introduction) as well.
Even the opioid system guides this process with the pleasure aspect of a drug, food, or activity.
This reward circuit, as it's called in psychology, is a process of learning, reinforcement, and repeat.
We'll look at the critical players here below which we can actually impact (where CBD comes in) but let's first check out the brain.
We have to introduce a new term which is key to cravings (and stopping it).
This is a technical term to refer to what you focus on...of all the things in your mind, what is important.
It's at the heart of craving since that drug of choice (be it alcohol or gambling) dominates your thought prior to use. It has maximum salience!
Hold to that for later on with our study on CBD and craving research. It's the linchpin of this entire review!
Brain areas tied to craving
There's actually interesting information on where cravings exists in the brain (if not the gut...we'll talk about that!).
Three main areas come into focus (salience???) with cravings:
The MRIs, completed during the induced cravings, showed that the parts of the brain involved in food cravings—the hippocampus, caudate, and insula—are identical to those involved in drug addiction.
The hippocampus is our seat of memory and emotional control.
Drugs of addiction have an ability to actually dampen the ability of the hippocampus to remodel and change (called neurogenesis) which makes them seemingly intractable.
We'll look at how to reverse that below.
The other two areas are tied into the reward circuit.
They belong to the striatum...a strip of real estate intimately linked with dopamine and reward.
Finally, the prefrontal cortex, our rational overlord in charge of keeping primal impulses at bay may not be keeping up with the job.
Again, all this points to the reward circuit in the brain which makes complete sense.
To really understand why we have to look at the messengers involved.
Neurotransmitters and the brain
First, understand that the neurotransmitters are intimately intertwined.
That being said, there are clear leaders in the reward circuit above that drive cravings.
Front and center is dopamine. Let's go there.
Dopamine and cravings
Dopamine is a heavy hitter in this process.
People associate it with pleasure but that's not entirely true.
It's more like the "do that again" signal.
Going back 30,000 years ago, if our ancestors stumbled on a great water source or patch of berries, dopamine would ensure through the brain that we remembered where that was.
It guides a type of learning in the brain:
- Unexpected reward
- Memory creation in order to redo
- Emotional and pleasure context added for good measure
Remember that the whole issue of "salience" or what the brain determines is important?
It's a metabolite (breakdown chemical) norepinephrine also figures in. It's literally the chemical of focus and arousal.
To show how the process of craving is all driven by one pathway, look at how the effects of food cravings correspond with cocaine cravings:
Importantly, there were large individual differences in the motivational properties of the cocaine cue, which were predicted by variation in the propensity to attribute incentive salience to a food cue.
More importantly, they injected dopamine directly into the area (nucleus accumbens) tied to addiction:
Finally, a dopamine antagonist injected into the nucleus accumbens core attenuated, and amphetamine facilitated, cue-evoked cocaine seeking, implicating dopamine signaling in cocaine cue-evoked craving.
Essentially, when they blocked dopamine, cravings went down. When they boosted activity to this area (amphetamine), the craving was boosted.
This falls under the umbrella of dopamine's role in survival learning.
The issue is that drugs and certain activities, if REPETITIVE, will make the addiction of choice more important (more salient) than anything else.
One final stop...glutamate.
Glutamate is our brain's "gas pedal". Lots of new research is pointing to glutamate imbalance for many issues with addiction front and center.
Here's the deal...glutamate is directly tied to OCD or repetitive thoughts.
Cravings can be thought of as repetitive thoughts towards a singular goal.
This gets technical but we'll break it down:
Thus, cue-hypersensitivity of vmPFC glutamate terminals is a biochemical correlate of incubated cocaine-craving that may stem from dopamine dysregulation in this region.
They're saying that the initiation of cravings is marked by rising glutamate levels in the rational part of the brain.
Dopamine may be driving this as glutamate is just a workhorse under direction from other controllers (dopamine, serotonin, etc).
A different study on alcohol cravings:
- Elevated Glutamate Levels in the Left Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex Are Associated With Higher Cravings for Alcohol
- There's that prefrontal cortex again (rational brain area).
- So...too much activity here acts like an intensity dial on cravings and focus.
- Really look at the study on NAC which is safe, cheap, and available!
- The two studies above are telling since they have operate from opposite ends of the spectrum.
- The first was for cocaine, a stimulant. The second was for alcohol, a depressant.
- Glutamate lies at the intersection of both!
- One last stop before we look at CBD directly.
Tolerance and cravings
Let's explain the vicious cycle of tolerance.
We have a full explanation of CBD and tolerance here.
We'll take alcohol (could be food or cocaine or SSRIs or gambling).
Let's focus on dopamine since it appears to be the source of cravings.
We all naturally have a baseline range of dopamine function.
There's a great explanation here:
Anything that causes addiction will spike dopamine way above what our natural system is familiar with.
By definition, this is why they are addictive and carrots are not.
Since human behavior is so complex, this "focus" can get applied to almost anything.
The addictive drugs however have a special side-trick of juicing dopamine.
Here's the problem.
Over the short term, alcohol may boost dopamine levels and the body doesn't panic too much.
Longer term, the brain will try to offset this illegal tampering from outside by downregulating dopamine function (sensitivity and receptors).
This means that our baseline (called tonic) dopamine goes further and further down.
Eventually, the alcohol boost just brings us to normal.
Keep going and the alcohol boost takes us way out of negative to breakeven if we're lucky.
Meaning...you can't get out of bed without alcohol.
It feeds into the craving side since you now need the drug just to function since your natural system is so downregulated.
This also applies to whatever neurotransmitter or hormone (in the case of food) is being affected.
A quick listing:
- Benzos - GABA (see CBD versus benzos or CBD and GABA)
- SSRIs - serotonin (see CBD versus SSRIs or CBD and serotonin)
- Alcohol - GABA and serotonin
- Cannabis - Anandamide
- Stimulants like cocaine and meth - Glutamate
- Nicotine - choline and glutamate
Food is more complicated as hormones come into play but same theory.
Whatever your flavor of action is, that system will get suppressed after long term use.
This will make cravings feel like life and death since these pathways are so critical to feeling good and balanced.
One more interesting little tidbit about dopamine.
Researchers did a study with mice where they gave food every day at the same time and looked at dopamine levels.
As expected, there was a boost of dopamine after the food.
Interestingly, as the days went on, the dopamine dropped even though the mice continued to eat the regularly scheduled food.
Dopamine, it turns out, is about novelty.
Unexpected reward. Gambling is a killer in this system!
This is a fascinating quirk about dopamine that most people don't realize.
The 2nd, 3rd, and 100th use of an addictive substance is likely to show less and less satisfaction.
That feeds into increasing amounts that just drives the learning process of addiction.
Finally, we're at our destination.
Can CBD help with cravings
We'll start with the actual studies on CBD and cravings and then zero into the machinery below which you've been so patient in reviewing above.
So...CBD and cravings.
Let's jump right into it.
CBD and opioid cravings
We'll cut right to the chase:
Acute CBD administration, in contrast to placebo, significantly reduced both craving and anxiety induced by the presentation of salient drug cues compared with neutral cues.
Craving and the physiological effects (anxiety) from addiction after seeing cues (which is where cravings start).
The follow up is even more fascinating:
CBD also showed significant protracted effects on these measures 7 days after the final short-term (3-day) CBD exposure.
Long term effects continued.
This is just about balancing neurotransmitters as those effects are fleeting.
We're talking about neurogenesis which we'll get into below.
A study on CBD and alcohol showed similar effects:
Experimental studies found that CBD reduces the overall level of alcohol drinking in animal models of AUD by reducing ethanol intake, motivation for ethanol, relapse, anxiety, and impulsivity.
CBD and Food and Drug cravings
Another study looked at CBD to THC ratios for cravings:
Greater attentional bias to drug and food stimuli was found in the low CBD: THC ratio group on the short picture presentation interval of the dot-probe task on an intoxicated day (implicit “wanting”).
This is interesting...basically, the more CBD in the product, the less "wanting" or cravings.
This was for both drug and food cues!
Interesting, higher ratios of CBD also figured into how pleasurable the drug or food was:
Moreover, a high CBD: THC ratio was associated with lower ratings of pleasantness for drug stimuli (explicit “liking”), while no group difference in craving or stoned ratings was noted.
This is a separation between "wanting" (craving) and "liking" (pleasure).
CBD and nicotine cravings
A study looked at CBD's effects on cravings for nicotine:
The results showed a significant reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked (≈40%) in the CBD inhaler group during the week of treatment, with a trend indicating a reduction after follow-up.
Let's turn our focus to addiction with very few resources for the treatment...cocaine.
Interesting research is surfacing:
Repeated Cannabidiol Treatment Reduces Cocaine Intake and Modulates Neural Proliferation and CB1R Expression in the Mouse Hippocampus
Another study looked at cocaine and meth craving:
CBD also potentiated the extinction of cocaine- and amphetamine-induced conditioned place preference (CPP), impaired the reconsolidation of cocaine CPP and prevented priming-induced reinstatement of METH CPP.
Ahhh...conditioned place preference.
Let's break that down because it's at the heart of craving.
Conditioned place preference (CPP) is a form of Pavlovian conditioning used to measure the motivational effects of objects or experiences.
Let's explain that. It basically means what is most important in your brain at a given time.
What's front and center in your mind or motivation!
This is the issue with stimulants like cocaine and meth...they drive their use and occupy your every thought.
Conditioned place preference indeed!
So CBD did two things in this study:
- It erased the craving-driving effect of cocaine and meth
- It also prevented the re-establishment of this preference
The latter is really important to recovery.
What about CBD and food cravings?
Let's look at its cousin, THC.
THC is a known appetite stimulant.
The munchies is a real thing.
A study looked at CBD's effect on this aspect of THC:
Cannabidiol Attenuates the Appetitive Effects of Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol in Humans Smoking Their Chosen Cannabis
So...CBD offsets THC's increase in appetite including craving and increased pleasure.
We've just covered many of the known addictive substances.
What about addictive behaviors that directly tied to a substance?
Shopping. Gambling. Almost anything that drives cravings.
This falls into the compulsion side of things and there are interesting studies there:
Acute systemic CBD reduced marble-burying behavior for up to 7 days, with no attenuation in effect up to high (120 mg/kg) doses, and the effect was shown to depend on CB1Rs but not 5-HT1ARs
This is a test of OCD and compulsion essentially.
Now, let's drill down.
The studies on CBD and cocaine or meth were especially telling.
Let's look at CBD and the basis of cravings:
- CBD and serotonin for cravings
- CBD and dopamine for cravings
- CBD and glutamate for cravings
- CBD and neurogenesis (maybe the most important) for cravings
First, serotonin, our governor of all human behavior (might be relevant).
Its effect is especially pronounced with food cravings:
Serotonin is nature's own appetite suppressant. This powerful brain chemical curbs cravings and shuts off appetite.
When they put me on SSRIs which boost serotonin, I lost 30 pounds in 1 month.
Of course, I also lost all joy and feeling, eventually landing in the ER but that's story is here.
This is why we feel the need to eat carbs and sugar during depression or when we're down.
More importantly, serotonin imbalance it tied to compulsion, risky behavior, and behavior closely tied to cravings.
One of CBD's greatest tricks is on serotonin function.
Its effect on depression (see CBD and depression) is directly tied to balancing this key pathway.
A study looked at CBD after an induced injury knocked serotonin function off-balance (serotonin controls pain sensitivity):
Seven days of treatment with CBD reduced mechanical allodynia, decreased anxiety-like behavior, and normalized 5-HT activity.
The keyword there is "normalized".
Check out all the research at our CBD and serotonin review. Very fascinating.
What about the real star of cravings….dopamine?
CBD and schizophrenia is probably the best place to look since it involves dopamine being too high in one area (striatum) while also too low in another area (prefrontal cortex).
The current medications dampen ALL dopamine which is brutal in terms of thought process, depression, and even parkinsonism...all of which reflect dropped dopamine.
CBD's effect there is pronounced:
The MRI results showed that the irregular brain activity in the three areas we mentioned above (striatum, medial temporal cortex, and midbrain - all tied to psychosis and schizophrenia) normalized to match those of the healthy control subjects.
You see the striatum (too much dopamine) and the cortex (too little dopamine).
The effect was so pronounced that the vast majority were deemed to not be psychotic.
Read the review of CBD and schizophrenia.
How is this possible? To have such different effects in the same brain for the same neurotransmitter?
This is really the beauty of the endocannabinoid system which is tasked with balance.
It also speaks to CBD's unique ability.
Most substances (even THC) push a pathway in one direction or another.
THC pumps CB1 activity, our main endocannabinoid receptor. Up up up.
This can have effects as it gets too high.
CBD is technically called an allosteric negative modulator.
This means it works like a feedback mechanism.
Because of this, you can have different reactions depending on the state of the pathway!
Let's focus on glutamate now.
CBD and glutamate for cravings
Glutamate is another key player on the cravings stage along with it's opposing counterpart...GABA.
CBD has shown in research to have a similar effect as with serotonin or dopamine.
Balance is the key.
A study looked at CBD and glutamate/GABA for people with autism who have altered profiles in that pathway.
A summary of this is found here:
Across regions, CBD increased GABA+ in controls, but decreased GABA+ in ASD; the group difference in change in GABA + in the DMPFC was significant.
This is interesting since people with autism (ASD) have reduced glutamate in the prefrontal cortex.
CBD would increase GABA but not in the prefrontal cortex for people with autism!
We don't want more GABA in the prefrontal cortex in this situation.
A summary level of CBD and glutamate/GABA is here:
CBD has multiple targets, but one aspect of its polypharmacy may be to help regulate excitatory glutamate (E) and inhibitory γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (I) transmission, which may influence the activity of excitatory and inhibitory signalling pathways
That's glutamate and GABA!
Finally, let's look at an important piece for reducing cravings and it may be surprising to many people.
CBD and neurogenesis (maybe the most important) for cravings
Neurogenesis is going to be the touchstone for the next decade.
It's the working horse behind CBD, SSRIs, psilocybin, ketamine, and other revolutionary new tools for mental health issues and addiction.
It is essentially the repair and rebuild process of our nervous system.
What on earth does that have to do with cravings?
The study on CBD and cocaine or meth cravings are very instructive.
First, the cocaine craving study from above:
Moreover, our findings show that CBD has pro-neurogenic effects also in cocaine consuming animals.
Basically, they found that the ability to reduce cravings was tied to building new pathways in the brain.
Think of cravings as learning (based on repetition and dopamine) and think of learning as a river that's carved out a valley.
Water will easily flow down that established river (synapses and pathways in the brain).
It's well worn and carved out!
In order to "unwind" cravings, we need new pathways around the river.
We need to "unlearn" the cue-action-reward pathway in the brain.
Does this speak to the CBD's pro-neurogenesis effect and the result??
Reduction in cravings for one of the most addictive and intractable substances that humans know.
Even more addictive, let's dig deeper into the study on meth cravings:
The potential mechanisms involved in the protective effects of CBD on addiction to psychostimulant drugs include the prevention of drug-induced neuroadaptations (neurotransmitter and intracellular signaling pathways changes), the erasure of aberrant drug-memories, the reversion of cognitive deficits induced by psychostimulant drugs and the alleviation of mental disorders comorbid with psychostimulant abuse.
That's a lot of science babble but it's so important!
Let's translate please:
- Neuroadaptations and signaling pathway changes - hello!! Redirect the river!
- Erasure of drug memories - requires neurogenesis
Then there are the whole mental health issues that are the driving force of addiction and eventually cravings.
CBD's effect on neurogenesis is well-established.
Check out the following:
This...is...the...future of mental health.
The neurogenesis effect also helps guide us on dosage.
Let's go there now.
How much CBD for cravings
The studies we looked at above were on more serious cravings tied to addiction.
We'll look there since this is the extreme.
Most of the studies tested levels from 400 - 600 mg per day.
We actually have research that specifies the higher range for neurogenesis which appears to be key to reducing and remodeling cravings.
The peak level for this effect is 300 mg per day.
After this level, the neurogenesis effect goes away up to 600 mg in studies.
There are positive effects beyond the 300 mg for more serious issues but long term (see CBD and short term or long term effects) require neurogenesis.
Keep in mind that 300mg is a higher amount so you may see positive effects much lower.
A good test dosage is usually around 25-30 mg.
This brings us to the type of CBD.
What's the best CBD for cravings
We have baseline requirements:
- Organically grown in the US at an FDA registered farm
- 3rd party tested
- CO2 processed
- THC free - (THC has been shown to increase the pleasure of other food and addictive drugs)
- No solvents
- No heavy metals
- No pesticides
- No bacteria
- No mold
We test our product twice since our whole family uses it.
Then there's the question of CBD isolate versus full spectrum which is pushed everywhere.
Unfortunately, all the research we've studied (100's of NIH studies) are based on CBD isolate (CBD by itself).
This goes for the research on CBD and cravings.
We don't have research on full spectrum.
More importantly, roughly 40-60% of the population has allergy or histamine issues.
This goes up for women and as we get older.
As a result, many people have bad reactions to full-spectrum (essentially histamine responses) which go away with CBD isolate.
You can see our reviews to understand this difference.
Finally, we have to be able to afford CBD.
Many brands are charging way too much for their product.
The key is the cost per mg of CBD. We price ours at the lowest end of the entire market and that's before various discounts.
The reason is that we found CBD originally from a health crisis (see our story here).
There is a great deal of suffering that CBD might be able to help with and addiction and cravings are front and center.
Always work with a doctor or naturopath with any supplement!
The information provided here is not intended to treat an illness or substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.