It's a legitimate question.
Coming off our big review of CBD and addiction, the question is valid and interesting in what it says about how it works.
Research is pointing to CBD's ability to help with addiction and withdrawals to other drugs so what is happening on this front?
There are three things we need for classic addiction:
- A surge in the dopamine system (reward pathway)
- Tolerance - diminishing returns as the body fights back
- Hedonic - causing pleasure
We'll look at each of these for CBD specifically.
Here are the topics we'll look at:
- Is CBD addictive
- CBD and dopamine
- CBD and tolerance
- CBD and hedonic
- Why isn't CBD habit-forming
- Is CBD safe for long term use
Let's get started!
Is CBD addictive
Let's jump right to the question before we get into components.
We'll start with WHO's assessment via Harvard medicine:
In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…. To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
A full NIH review of CBD's safety only references its effect on other addictions (cannabis, opioid, etc).
CBD doesn't appear to be habit-forming in any of the research.
We covered the various aspects of this question at our Can CBD cause withdrawals review.
CBD and dopamine
First stop, dopamine.
We looked at CBD and dopamine pathways in detail since this neurotransmitter is so important to how we feel.
It's really a linchpin for something to be addictive (cocaine versus broccoli).
Dopamine is the key mediator of our reward circuit.
People equate it with pleasure but that's not the case...it's the "do that again" neurotransmitter that originates from nature's push to learn and remember sources of food, water, etc that are key to survival.
Drugs (or any behavior) that are addictive, have a side-trick of juicing up dopamine above the level that the body is used to.
These jacked-up levels of dopamine cause an accelerated learning process of the cues, actions, and response to the drugs.
Learning on steroids!
A foreign language may take years of studying to master through repetition (do that again) but methamphetamine is so powerful in the dopamine pathway, a few uses might do the trick.
Above food, water, sex, job, loved ones...you name it.
Research is actually pointing to CBD's ability to normalize dopamine pathways.
The review of CBD and schizophrenia is telling this is a setup of too much dopamine in one brain area (striatum) and too little in another (cortex).
In fact, the major antipsychotics drop dopamine system-wide which can lead to parkinsonism and worse "negative symptoms" like depression, loss of effect, etc.
CBD doesn't worsen the negative symptoms while it helps with the positive systems.
This is very fascinating and speaks to upstream serotonin balancing (see CBD and serotonin).
There another insidious effect of addictive drugs on dopamine.
As a result of the surges, the brain pushes back the other way and actually reduces dopamine function.
Eventually, you need the drug just to bring the dopamine up to a normal level (with no reward).
At that point, you're just using the drug to not feel horrible.
This is classic tolerance.
What about CBD and tolerance?
CBD and tolerance
First, does CBD cause this tolerance effect?
No. Check out the review for the studies reflecting this outcome.
This is so important as the most prescribed medications today do cause tolerance:
- Benzos (see CBD versus benzos) for GABA
- SSRIs (see CBD versus antidepressants) for Serotonin
- Opioids for naturally occurring opioid system
Goodness, those are three major classes of medications which are spiking over the last 10 years.
Why doesn't it cause tolerance there?
This is the beauty of CBD or the endocannabinoid system it works in.
This system is tasked balancing other key systems in the body:
- Nervous system - neurotransmitters like GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate
- Endocrine system - hormones including stress hormones (key to withdrawals)
- Immune system - key inflammatory pathways
What's CBD's role in this balancing act?
Where most chemicals push in one direction (benzos increase GABA, SSRIs increase serotonin levels, etc), CBD works as a feedback agent.
Technically, it's called an allosteric negative modulator.
This means that it sends a message backwards from the receiving neuron.
You can see this effect in so-called bi-phasic or tri-phasic results.
Different results depending on the state of the system.
CBD's effect on cancer is really fascinating as a result:
- Healthy neuron with low inflammation - CBD has no effect
- Health cell with high inflammation - CBD decreases inflammation
- Cancerous or faulty (even virally infected) cell - CBD INCREASES inflammation
That's a strange effect! What's going on here?
First, understand that our body's (immune system really) natural way to get rid of faulty cells is to increase oxidative stress to kill them.
It's called apoptosis.
The endocannabinoid system guides this cell birth/death cycle and the immune system carries out the orders.
This speaks to why CBD doesn't cause tolerance (or serotonin syndrome or overdose, etc).
It doesn't keep pushing in one direction or we would see a nasty side effect profile.
Check out CBD and tolerance for a full walkthrough.
CBD and hedonic
What on earth is hedonic?
Simply put, it means pleasure.
Does a substance cause implicit pleasure as a result of taking it?
Most addictive drugs are hedonic in this way.
For example, a mouse will continue to hit a lever to get cocaine even over food.
Over and over and over again.
This isn't just the dopamine system but brings in the opioid system for the pleasure aspect.
What about CBD? Is it hedonic?
These effects were not mediated by learning or retrieval alteration and CBD did not have hedonic properties on its own.
This is different of course from its cousin THC:
Different animal models have confirmed the low psychotropic nature of CBD [69–71], suggesting that in contrast to what is normally observed for THC, CBD does not have hedonic property on its own, that is, it is not rewarding and does not induce drug-seeking behavior.
Why isn't CBD habit-forming
- CBD does pump the dopamine system
- CBD does not cause tolerance
- CBD is not hedonic
That's the trifecta of addiction or habit-forming ability.
More importantly, CBD is showing promise to help with addiction to other substances.
We've covered some of this research in detail here:
- CBD and cannabis addiction
- CBD and benzos
- CBD and SSRIs
- CBD and alcohol addiction
- CBD and glutamate (a key pathway for addiction)
Opioids are slated for our next review as there is very interesting research.
The most fascinating piece is that these different drugs all revolve around different pathways (GABA, serotonin, glutamate, anandamide, etc).
How is CBD affecting such different pathways?
The endocannabinoid system is a wide arching balancing agent across the body.
If you read the research in the reviews above, you'll see NIH studies that talk about CBD's ability to "normalize", "rescue", or "modulate".
Not increase or decrease in one direction.
This applies even to dopamine which is critical for any habit-forming substance.
In fact, you can argue that CBD may help to balance dopamine after addiction to other addictive substances.
Most of the research shows CBD appears to affect "salience" or the intense focus and mental selectivity of a particular drug that results from addiction.
This is the craving part and dopamine is definitely involved.
As researchers put it:
Cannabidiol, a Nonpsychotropic Component of Cannabis, Inhibits Cue-Induced Heroin Seeking and Normalizes Discrete Mesolimbic Neuronal Disturbances
Goodness...let's decipher this because it's too important.
First, CBD blunted that initial "excitement" and craving when a heroin user sees a needle or other cue (place, person, thing, etc).
More importantly, it "normalizes" (there's that word for balance) brain connection in the neighborhood where dopamine reigns supreme.
This one study (of many) pinpoints why CBD is not habit-forming.
It appears to balance the very neurotransmitters which when imbalanced, lead to addiction and habit forming behavior.
Check out CBD and addiction for updated research on this whole process.
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.