If you think of CBD as a pretty safe option for pain or anxiety relief, it wouldn’t be hard to find studies to back you up. In fact, CBD’s safety profile has long been one of its most attractive features, with the World Health Organization affirming that it is generally “well-tolerated.”
But does that mean that it’s safe for everyone?
As CBD has found its way into the medicine cabinets of many households, some researchers are becoming concerned about its effects on one segment of the population in particular. Namely, pregnant women. In fact, they’re even more concerned about its effects on the gestating fetus.
Companies often market CBD as if it’s a totally innocuous substance. It is a natural plant extract, after all. But a new study from the University of Minnesota shows how that message could pose a problem for pregnant women who might want to use CBD to help deal with the discomforts of pregnancy.
According to Dr. Nicole Wanner, a postdoctoral fellow in UMN’s College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the study, “The fact that CBD is indicated for a lot of things that might happen during pregnancy, like nausea or pain, makes us pretty concerned that this would be a potential exposure for people.”
“Some people can also perceive something that’s from a plant as maybe more natural compared to using a conventional drug. But that isn’t always necessarily the case. Plants can contain some very active ingredients that can be just as impactful as any other drug.”
To explore what the specific impacts could be on a developing fetus, the research team at UMN, dosed pregnant pregnant mice daily throughout pregnancy and lactation until the offspring were weaned. Researchers then observed the offspring into adulthood, though without any additional dosing of CBD.
People can perceive something that’s from a plant as maybe more natural compared to using a conventional drug. But that isn’t always necessarily the case.
Once they reached maturity, they were measured for the behavioral and molecular impacts of CBD. Among the study’s key findings, were these four points:
- Maternal CBD treatment increased anxiety and improved memory performance in adult female offspring, while males were unaffected.
- The effects of CBD during pregnancy persisted even though the offspring had no direct exposure as adults.
- Maternal CBD treatment shifted gene regulatory marks (DNA methylation) at hundreds of genes in the brains of adult female offspring.
- Genes affected by CBD were involved in the formation of new neurons and synapses, communication between neurons, and diseases like autism spectrum disorder, epilepsy, and substance use disorder.
These study findings are significant, according to study director Christopher Faulk. “We show here that use during pregnancy can permanently impact the resulting offspring in adulthood and potentially for the rest of their lives.”
Wanner also points out that the changes to gene regulatory marks are not reversible: “DNA methylation marks in the brain are largely set during fetal development, and the presence of CBD during that process appears to direct certain permanent changes.”
Altogether the study painted a troubling picture of the possible harmful effects of regular CBD use on a developing fetus. The UMN research team is already planning follow-up studies exploring CBD’s impact on mice’s adolescent development (since adolescence is a typical age for the onset of mental health disorders in humans).
That more research is needed is clear – as well as education for pregnant women who may well be unaware of any possible risk to their children. According to Faulk, a confluence of factors that have put CBD in such a unique position of massive popularity and simultaneously, limited scientific research:
“I struggle to think of any sort of category of substance where research into it had been essentially prohibited for decades and then all of a sudden humans started taking massive quantities of it,” Faulk said. “There’s a huge gap in human use and in human research. It’s almost unprecedented compared to other substances. … We’ve got to catch up.”