CBD — often in the form of an oil, a tincture, or an edible — has been rumored to reduce anxiety, a common symptom among those diagnosed with ADHD symptoms. CBD and THC are both cannabinoids, but they can have differing effects on the body. Learn more about the differences in the effects and benefits of CBD vs, THC.
CBD Oil for ADHD? Despite Scarce Research, Patients Are Trying It
Early research suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) may help patients with epilepsy. It is also believed to relieve pain, anxiety, mood disorders, and even acne. But what about ADHD or ADD? So far, research linking CBD oil to ADHD symptom relief does not exist. That isn’t stopping patients from trying it.
Verified Medically reviewed by Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. Updated on January 5, 2022
UPDATE: On November 25, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a revised consumer update regarding safety concerns about cannabidiol (CBD) products. Due to limited research data, the FDA is unable to declare CBD products safe, according to the updated statement. The FDA warns that CBD can cause liver damage, increased drowsiness, and a number of other side effects. The impact of daily CBD use over a sustained period of time is unknown. Likewise, the FDA says there is insufficient research on the effect of CBD on the developing brain, on fetuses, and on the male reproductive system. The FDA has approved only one CBD product, which treats two rare forms of epilepsy. In late November, it issued warning letters to 15 companies for illegally selling products containing CBD.
These days, it’s tough to find an online community or social media group not singing the praises of cannabidiol (CBD) oil. This helps to explain why so many people are exploring its benefits for diseases and disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons to PTSD and, yes, attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Though research suggests that CBD oil may benefit patients with epilepsy and other disorders, any such claims around ADHD are only that: claims.
What Is CBD? Does It Help ADHD?
CBD is a product of the marijuana (cannabis) plant with the high-inducing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) compound removed, which means it is not psychoactive. CBD — often in the form of an oil, a tincture, or an edible — has been rumored to reduce anxiety, a common symptom among those diagnosed with ADHD symptoms. No one, though — not even the drug’s most hardcore advocates — claims CBD is a treatment for ADHD.
According to Mitch Earleywine, professor of psychology at SUNY-Albany and an advisory-board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), there is “no published data, let alone randomized clinical trials, [that] support the use of CBD for ADHD.”
Even so, word of CBD’s potential benefits — proven or otherwise — are often enough to compel some patients with ADHD to experiment. Dr. John Mitchell of the Duke University ADHD Program says that one of his patients, an adult woman with ADHD, tried CBD. Twice. On her own. Without his approval or supervision.
“I bought one vial for $50 that contained 30 gel tablets, and I took all of them over a few weeks,” says Mitchell’s patient, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I’d never tried CBD or any type of cannabis before, and I felt no changes. But I didn’t have any adverse effects, either.”
Anecdotally, this outcome appears common for half of those trying CBD on their own — regardless of the quantity, quality, or type used. The other half claim some positives with regard to CBD and ADHD: “I was able to relax” or “I felt less manic” are common refrains. The problem, as Dr. Mitchell and the broader community of ADHD and CBD researchers point out, is a dearth of studies around CBD. No single research team has yet studied the possible effects — good or bad — of CBD oil for ADHD symptoms specifically.
“There are anecdotes that CBD may help with ADHD,” says Dr. Robert Carson, an assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University who co-authored a 2018 study on the efficacy of CBD on epilepsy, “but this is true for many other symptoms or diseases. Thus, there may be patients whose ADHD symptoms improve after adding CBD, but we cannot generalize that anecdote more broadly. Secondly, the cases we’re most likely to hear about are the one where somebody had a great response — not the 10 who did not.”
“I am not aware of any scientific or clinical data that would speak to the safety or efficacy of using CBD in the treatment of ADHD,” says Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., a member of John Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit. “There is no scientific basis from which CBD should be recommended for use as a treatment for ADHD, nor is there any data that could speak to which product or dose would be appropriate.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends treating ADHD in children and adolescents aged 6 to 18 with FDA-approved medications, plus parent training in behavior modification and behavioral classroom interventions. Likewise, research confirms that “stimulant medications are most effective, and combined medication and psychosocial treatment is the most beneficial treatment option for most adult patients with ADHD.” All ADHD treatment decisions should be made in consultation and coordination with a licensed medical provider.
Is CBD Legal? Is It Safe?
To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form; 10 other states and Washington, D.C., have adopted laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Even so, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers CBD, like all cannabinoids, a schedule 1 drug — making it as illegal as heroin and ecstasy. Despite this, one cannabis industry expert predicts that CBD products alone will comprise a nearly $3 billion market by 2021.
With all that profit on the horizon, why so few studies? At least partially to blame is the legality of CBD; it’s difficult to attain a federal grant to study a federally illegal drug. Politics also come into play, as do lingering public perceptions of cannabis as a gateway drug that may lead to serious mental disorders, lethargy, or both.
Nevertheless, Dr. Mitchell feels that “The perception that [CBD] can have a negative effect has gone down because it’s becoming more available.”
This is not a perception shared by all of Dr. Mitchell’s peers, who note professional resentment and stigma regarding funding for cannabis research. “There’s a lot of political opposition coming from the business and scientific communities,” asserts Dr. Jacob Vigil, director of the University of New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Research Fund. “It’s still highly stigmatized, and we need more studies.”
The studies done on CBD and ADHD to date amount to… practically nothing. One 2011 study showed that, among a group of 24 people with social anxiety disorder, the half who’d taken CBD were able to speak in front of a large audience. In 2015, researchers in Germany examined the relationship between cannabis (CBD and THC) and ADD in 30 patients, all of whom said they experienced better sleep, better concentration, and reduced impulsivity while using the cannabis products. Finally, a 2017 study looking at CBD oil and ADHD in adults found that the oil improved some symptoms, but that more studies were needed to confirm its findings.
The Dangers of Experimenting with CBD for ADHD
The Netherlands’ self-professed “cannabis myth buster,” Arno Hazekamp stated in a recent paper, “While new CBD products keep entering the market virtually unchecked, effective regulatory control of these products has stayed far behind. As a result, unknown risks about long-term effects remain unaddressed, especially in vulnerable groups such as children.”
“During [a person’s] development, I worry about cannabinoids, both CBD and THC,” says UCLA’s Evans. “There are adenosine receptors (and CB2 receptors) on the microglia that are critical for brain development, and CBD inhibits adenosine uptake. This may be a beneficial factor for epilepsy and autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, but who knows for ADHD.”
And while CBD may potentially benefit some patients with ADHD, “One is doing an experiment on oneself by taking CBD for ADHD,” Evans adds. “CBD is anti-inflammatory and I’m not sure there is good evidence mechanistically that for ADHD it might be helpful.”
It’s also unknown how CBD may interact with other medications. “CBD in any form is a drug, and thus has a potential for side effects or interactions with other drugs, specifically those metabolized through the liver [CBD is metabolized by the same enzyme in the liver that metabolizes many other medicines and supplements],” Carson says. “And with other ADHD medications that have sedating qualities, such as guanfacine or clonidine, there may be additive effects that may not be beneficial.”
Also potentially harmful is the non-standard and wildly fluctuating amount of CBD in most CBD products, even those labeled as “pure CBD oil.” Some such products may also contain other ingredients — pesticides, additives, herbs, and even THC. “CBD alone has multiple actions on the cells in the brain and we don’t know which ones are clearly responsible for its known benefits,” Carson says. “It gets more complicated when we have less purified products that also include THC and CBDV [cannabidivarin].”
Dangers may also exist in the method of delivery. CBD is packaged and consumed in oils, tinctures, or edibles — each one absorbed differently by a person’s body. “The labeling in this industry,” says Vigil of UNM, “is horrific.”
‘Natural’ Doesn’t Necessarily Mean ‘Safe’
Once CBD enters the body, no one yet knows how it works. Its long-term effects are a mystery. Exactly how does CBD work — in the brain and over many years? As Dr. Carson bluntly puts it: “We don’t know and we don’t know.”
None of this will stop some people from self-medicating with CBD or trying it on their children. “Apparently there are products offering about 30mg of CBD per dose,” Earleywine says. “I rarely see published work with humans that shows much of an effect below 300mg, which… would get quite expensive… So it’s probably a waste of time and money.”
“The bottom line,” Evans says, “is that there is a dearth of research on all cannabinoid actions — because of its schedule 1 classification — and no clear scientific evidence I can find to endorse or not endorse CBD use for ADHD.”
Perhaps because researchers have documented no negative links between CBD and ADHD, some “patients go through trial and error with CBD,” Vigil says. “First they go on the Internet, where they start with an isolate CBD. Then they try the vanilla products — only to find they get more benefits when they add THC.
“They do that because cannabis is so variable that patients are forced to experiment. Also because clinical trials can’t really tell you anything about the decisions that patients actually make in the real world. And finally because there’s not going to be a uniform solution for everybody.”
“Families need to think very hard about potential risks versus benefits for treating other disorders, including ADHD,” Carson advises. “So please discuss what you are thinking about doing with your child’s physician. In the absence of good data, a dose of 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight per day is where most patients start when using CBD for epilepsy — and this seems to be well tolerated. But if the side effects from any medication are worse than the problem was to begin with, that patient might be on too much.
“I like to remind families,” Carson adds, “that just because something is natural does not mean it is safe.”
CBD vs. THC: What’s the Difference?
Both come from cannabis, but THC is psychoactive and CBD is not
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.
Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images
Cannabis contains over 113 different chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. Cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are two types of chemical compounds derived from cannabis. In recent years, interest has grown in the potential health effects and benefits of cannabis. Much of this interest has centered on these two cannabinoids.
This interest will likely grow as cannabis and marijuana products become legal in more states. A number of different products have emerged that contain CBD, THC, or both that are designed to alleviate ailments such as stress, anxiety, and insomnia. To understand these products’ side effects and potential benefits, it is important to first understand the differences between CBD and THC.
What Is CBD?
Cannabidiol, usually referred to as CBD, is the second most prevalent chemical compound found in cannabis. First discovered during the 1940s, CBD has recently become more popular as a natural treatment for a range of conditions. It can be derived from hemp or from marijuana. Hemp-derived CBD still contains trace amounts of THC, while marijuana-derived CBD may contain more.
What Is THC?
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), THC activates the brain’s reward system by signaling the release of the brain chemical dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood and pleasure. By triggering a higher-than-normal release of dopamine, THC causes people to experience feelings of euphoria. THC is often administered by smoking marijuana, but it can also be found as an ingredient in capsules, edibles, and oils.
CBD vs. THC: Key Differences
THC and CBD have an effect on the endocannabinoid system, a system that plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis. Researchers are still working to understand the ins and outs of this complex system, but they do know that it is associated with processes including memory, appetite, sleep, mood, and fertility.
While THC and CBD share similarities, there are some key differences between the two compounds.
Psychoactive (produces a high)
Sourced from marijuana
Non-psychoactive (does not produce a high)
Typically sourced from hemp
CBD vs. THC: Psychoactive Properties
CBD and THC affect different receptors in the brain. Because of this, CBD typically does not have psychoactive effects—in other words, it won’t cause you to get high.
THC, on the other hand, does have psychoactive effects. It is the compound that produces the high that people associate with marijuana.
CBD vs. THC: Chemical Structure
Both CBD and THC have a chemical structure that is similar to the body’s natural endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that act in the brain.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that relay signals between nerve cells in the body. They play an important role in a wide range of functions including sleep, pain, appetite, mood, and the immune system.
CBD and THC have the same molecular structure, but there are differences in how these molecules are arranged that are responsible for the differing effects they have. By mimicking endocannabinoids, they bind with receptors and cause different effects in the body.
CBD vs. THC: Sources
While CBD can come from either hemp or marijuana, it is often derived from hemp in order to avoid the addition of larger amounts of THC. THC, on the other hand, is derived from marijuana.
CBD that comes from marijuana may contain more THC, which may not be ideal for people who are trying to avoid THC. Some CBD products that are produced from cannabis, for example, may contain more THC than the label suggests.
CBD vs. THC: Potential Benefits
While research on the potential health benefits of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids is still in the early stages, there is evidence that these substances may be helpful for conditions including:
- Symptoms of HIV/AIDS
- Opioid dependence
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBD)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Sleep difficulties
- Movement disorders
While CBD and THC often have similar effects and are often used to treat many of the same ailments, there are some differences.
CBD is often used to alleviate symptoms associated with:
THC, which may be administered as medical marijuana, may be used to alleviate symptoms of a number of conditions. It may be helpful for conditions such as:
- Nausea; it may help alleviate nausea caused by cancer treatment
- Pain associated with conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches
- Poor appetite; including appetite problems caused by cancer treatment
CBD vs. THC for Pain Relief
Both CBD and THC can both be beneficial for pain relief. Because THC has psychoactive effects, it may produce more immediate pain relief. However, CBD can help reduce inflammation, which is useful for long-term effectiveness. Some evidence suggests that taking both CBD and THC may provide the greatest pain relief. In one study, people who took a combination of CBD and THC experienced greater pain relief than those who took THC alone.
While cannabis itself has not been FDA approved to treat any condition, there are a few drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that contain CBD or THC.
- Epidiolex contains CBD and has been approved to treat seizures associated with two severe types of epilepsy—Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome
- Marinol and Syndros are drugs that contain dronabinol, a synthetic THC. These drugs are used to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy during cancer treatment.
- Cesamet contains nabilone, a synthetic substance that is similar to THC. This drug is used to treat weight loss and appetite problems associated with chemotherapy and HIV/AIDS.
CBD vs. THC: Side Effects
Some research suggests that CBD and THC are generally safe and result in few side effects.
However, while these substances appear safe, that does not necessarily mean that you won’t experience some unwanted effects. Some adverse effects that have been reported include:
- Changes in mood and appetite
- Feelings of anxiety or other mood changes
- Nausea and dizziness
THC use may also result in unpleasant side effects such as increased heart rate, dry mouth, and memory loss.
Marijuana itself can have a number of short-term and long-term adverse effects, including impaired short-term memory, altered judgment, and impaired coordination. Research also suggests that marijuana can alter brain development and may lead to cognitive impairment.
NIDA also notes that THC alters how the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex function. These areas of the brain are important in the formation of new memories and the ability to shift attention from one thing to the next. This not only affects a person’s ability to learn and form new memories, but it also makes it difficult for people to perform difficult tasks.
Legality of CBD and THC
When choosing CBD or THC products, it is also important to consider their legality. Both marijuana and THC are included in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, which means that they are not legal under federal law.
As of July 2020, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted policies allowing medical marijuana and products containing THC to be prescribed by a doctor. Some states also allow recreational use of marijuana and THC-containing products.
Although CBD in certain forms is legal in most states, the specifics of the legality of any THC or CBD product can vary from one state to the next. Several states have also approved the use of marijuana and THC for recreational purposes.
Because the laws regarding the use of cannabis and cannabis products are rapidly changing, you should always check your state’s laws before using products containing CBD or THC.
How to Take CBD and THC
Both THC and CBD can be consumed in a number of different forms. THC may be consumed as marijuana by smoking, but a number of other cannabis products are also available including:
- Vape products
- Edibles including gummies and chocolates
- Beverages containing marijuana oil
Like THC, CBD can also be consumed in a number of different forms. CBD oils can be formulated for vaping, although there have been recent concerns about the health dangers posed by vaping.
It can also be added to lotions and salves to apply to skin. It is important to note that the effects of these topical products will be localized since they are not being ingested.
CBD can also be taken orally as a tincture, oil, capsule, or spray. Edible CBD products are also popular and include gummies, candies, and beverages.
When choosing CBD products, it is also important to consider its formulation. Isolate products contain only CBD. Broad-spectrum products contain other cannabinoids with the exception of THC, while full-spectrum CBD products contain CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids.
Which One Should You Take?
The product you choose may depend on the effects you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to reduce stress or sleep better, for example, CBD may provide benefits without the negative side effects associated with THC. THC might be a better choice for symptoms or conditions for which the substance has demonstrated benefits, such as tremors or poor appetite.
The Entourage Effect
Some research suggests that the potential therapeutic effects of THC and CBD tend to be greater when the two cannabinoids are taken together at the same time. This phenomenon is known as the entourage effect.
Taking CBD along with THC has also been shown to help reduce some of the unwanted effects that THC may have. For example, one study suggests that CBD may potentially reduce some of the negative cognitive effects of regular cannabis use.
For example, people who use cannabis, particularly when it has high THC levels, may have a greater risk of experiencing psychiatric symptoms such as paranoia, anxiety, and psychosis. Studies have found, however, that CBD may help mitigate these effects.
One study found that CBD helped block some of the potential psychiatric effects of THC. The authors of the study suggest that such findings have important implications for the use of cannabis products. People who are prone to unwanted side effects, for example, may be able to still gain the potential health benefits by sticking to products that are low in THC and higher in CBD content.
It is also important to remember that CBD and THC work in a number of different areas of the brain, and researchers do not yet fully understand the effects that these cannabinoids have, either alone or in conjunction with one another.
Some evidence suggests that the combined effects of CBD and THC may be dependent on dose. A 2019 study, for example, found that low doses of CBD actually played a role in amplifying the psychoactive effects of THC, while high doses of CBD reduced THC’s effects.
Drug Testing CBD or THC
Because THC is the main psychoactive substance in marijuana, it can be detected on most standard drug tests. CBD may be detectable as well, but many drug tests are not designed to look for cannabidiol.
However, many CBD products do contain trace amounts of THC. While these amounts are small, they may still be detectable if you are consuming large quantities of CBD or if the products you are using contain more THC than the packaging label claims.
Research has found, for example, that as many as 70% of CBD products are mislabeled and contain significantly more THC than labels suggest. Because of the lack of regulation of these products, it is difficult to know exactly how much THC you are actually getting.
There is no way to tell between THC and CBD based on appearance, smell, taste, or texture. Purchasing products from reputable manufacturers and retailers may help ensure that you are getting the type of product you want.
Both THC and CBD are stored in body fat, which means that both can potentially be detected on drug tests for some time after you have stopped using them.
Before You Take CBD or THC
THC and CBD may also have an effect on some health conditions and can interact with certain medications, so you should always use caution before taking these products. These substances might impact how medications are metabolized by your body. They can also heighten feelings of anxiety in some cases.
Before choosing a THC or CBD product, it is important to check your state laws to ensure that these products are legal where you live. Federal law mandates that hemp-derived CBD products should contain less than 0.3% THC, but even those trace amounts are still illegal in some states.
A Word From Verywell
Both THC and CBD may have a number of benefits, but you should always talk to your doctor first before you try any products containing these cannabinoids. Both CBD and THC hold promise for alleviating symptoms and even treating some medical and mental health conditions, but research in this area is still relatively new and further investigation is needed.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Cannabis (marijuana) and cannabinoids: what you need to know.
Perry D, Ton J, Allan GM. Evidence for THC versus CBD in cannabinoids. Can Fam Physician. 2018;64(7):519. PMID: 30002029; PMCID: PMC6042662.
Volkow ND, Baler RD, Compton WM, Weiss SR. Adverse health effects of marijuana use. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(23):2219-2227. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1402309
Morgan CJ, Schafer G, Freeman TP, Curran HV. Impact of cannabidiol on the acute memory and psychotomimetic effects of smoked cannabis: naturalistic study: naturalistic study [corrected] [published correction appears in Br J Psychiatry. 2010 Nov;197:416]. Br J Psychiatry. 2010;197(4):285-290. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.077503
Bonn-miller MO, Loflin MJE, Thomas BF, Marcu JP, Hyke T, Vandrey R. Labeling accuracy of cannabidiol extracts sold online. JAMA. 2017;318(17):1708-1709. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11909
By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.