Is CBD Safe When Pregnant or Nursing?
CBD, or cannabidiol, is on the rise. These days, CBD, the non-psychoactive compound derived from the cannabis plant, is popping up in everything from tinctures, balms and oils, to soft drinks and dog treats.
There is a growing body of research that shows CBD’s promising potential to ease the symptoms of anxiety, nausea, chronic pain, and illnesses related to inflammation [₁,₂]. With relatively minimal side effects, many are turning to CBD instead of NSAIDs or other painkillers for relief.
(You can check out our article Can I replace NSAIDs with CBD? if you want to learn more).
Yet there are still many gaps in the research and unanswered questions about exactly how CBD works. While we often hear rave reviews and testimonials from our customers in our Head & Heal Insiders group, we also hear a lot of questions and concerns about the safety and effectiveness of CBD, especially around the topic of pregnancy and nursing.
After all, morning sickness, aches and pains, and the stress and discomfort of creating and growing a baby inside you all seem like the ideal symptoms that CBD can ease. However, do we know how CBD exposure in the womb affects childhood development? How much is a child exposed to CBD through nursing? Can CBD harm or change the developing baby, even if it’s providing relief or ease for the person taking it?
At Head & Heal, we’re committed to educating our customers and community, providing them with the most accurate information possible. So to answer these questions from our community, we spoke with PhD candidate Nicole M. Wanner, who was part of a research team at the University of Minnesota that looked at how mice exposed to CBD in the womb developed throughout their lives.
A Study on CBD, Pregnancy, and Nursing; A Conversation About the Research
An Interview with researcher Nicole M. Wanner
Can you explain a bit more about your study on CBD exposure during pregnancy and the result of your study?
Our study examined the effects of exposure to CBD in the womb and during nursing on adult mouse offspring. Despite having no exposure to CBD as adults, these animals showed lasting behavior changes.
The behavior results were mixed – anxiety worsened and memory improved in the CBD condition, but only in female offspring. Male offspring exposed to CBD in the womb had normal behavior. Many other exposures before birth show this imbalance between males and females, but why it happens is still being investigated.
The behavior differences in females were associated with thousands of changes in DNA methylation in the brain.
DNA methylation is an epigenetic mark that helps dictate the “when, where, and how much” of our genes, without changing the DNA sequence itself. These changes can influence health and disease.
DNA methylation changes were found in genes for synapse organization, neurogenesis, and other processes that have been associated with neuropsychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, and autism in other studies.
Synapses are the connections between brain cells (neurons). Neurogenesis is the process of making new brain cells.
While these epigenetic changes were associated with behavior differences, we cannot say that they caused those differences.
More work will be needed to establish cause and effect, and other processes are likely to be involved. Nor can we say that CBD during pregnancy causes any specific disease.
What additional studies are needed to determine if CBD is safe or unsafe during pregnancy and nursing?
This is one of the first studies to evaluate the long-term effects of CBD during pregnancy in mammals, so much more work is needed to determine its real impact. There have been studies where childhood and adolescent health were compared between children whose mothers used during pregnancy and children whose mothers did not, and those results have generally been negative.
While CBD and THC act via different mechanisms, they both affect the endocannabinoid system, which is critical for maintaining balance during early development.
Can you share more about your motivation for studying this particular research topic?
Our laboratory has studied the effects of exposure to environmental toxins like arsenic in the past. My interest in CBD stemmed from its recent popularity and a lack of information in the area of CBD and pregnancy. Cannabinoids interact with many pathways in the body and brain, and I have seen it recommended for pregnancy concerns like nausea, so understanding whether that exposure in the womb will have consequences is critical.
Is it difficult to get funding or support for CBD-related research?
It depends largely on the funding source, but academic and medical interest in CBD seems to be growing. Certain research areas like pain seem more likely to have funding success so far, and that research is extremely useful. However, I think we will also see a gradual broadening of possibilities across other applications in the future.
As a researcher, what would you say to someone who is pregnant or nursing who is curious about trying CBD for nausea, pain, inflammation, or anxiety? Are there alternatives you would suggest in light of your research findings?
We are far from understanding the full picture of how CBD exposure in the womb and during early life affects long-term health. Our study was in mice, which make a useful model, but they are quite different from people. So, it is difficult to provide direction based on our one study.
Still, I would encourage caution for women thinking about using CBD during pregnancy or nursing. These early periods are critical for healthy brain development, and what happens during that time lays the foundation for the rest of the child’s life.
Unfortunately, information about long-term effects of use during pregnancy are not available for many other treatments for these concerns. I encourage people thinking of becoming pregnant to learn how to identify reliable sources of information online and read about the research that has been done so far. Speaking with your doctor is usually the best way to identify options for managing your symptoms during pregnancy and nursing. I sincerely hope that this area of research (exposures during pregnancy and child/adult offspring health) will receive more attention in the future.
To sum up what we’ve learned from our research and conversations,
- CBD is often used to ease the symptoms of anxiety, pain, stress, and nausea, which can all be commonly experienced during pregnancy
- While research has emerged to show the possible benefits of CBD use, there isn’t the same level of research on how being exposed to CBD in the womb or through nursing can affect childhood development in the short and longterm
- A recent study from UMN is one of the first to study how mice were affected by CBD exposure in the womb and nursing. Their study found that female offspring showed higher levels of anxiety and memory performance, as well as other changes to their DNA
- While there are many studies and anecdotes of CBD being beneficial when consuming it for yourself, taking CBD while pregnant or nursing could potentially pose risks to your child’s development
- Not all CBD is created equal. If CBD is a part of your wellness regimen, look for brands that are transparent with how their products are created and willing to share their third-party lab reports
- It’s recommended to consult with your doctor and healthcare team when treating any symptoms related to pregnancy and nursing
- Grinspoon, P. (2018, August 24). Cannabidiol (CBD) — what we know and what we don’t. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cannabidiol-cbd-what-we-know-and-what-we-dont-2018082414476
- Russo, E. B. (2016). Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Reconsidered: Current Research Supports the Theory in Migraine, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel, and Other Treatment-Resistant Syndromes. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 1(1), 154–165. https://doi.org/10.1089/can.2016.0009
- Wanner, N. M., Colwell, M., Drown, C., & Faulk, C. (2021). Developmental cannabidiol exposure increases anxiety and modifies genome-wide brain DNA methylation in adult female mice. Clinical Epigenetics, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13148-020-00993-4
- Wanner, N. (2021, July 6). CBD and Pregnancy (K. Gresoski, Interviewer) [Review of CBD and Pregnancy Research].
This article was written by Kira Gresoski. Thank you again to Nicole M. Wanner and UMN for sharing their insights.