Cannabidiol (CBD) is used medicinally for a wide range of issues. From muscle recovery to insomnia, the chemical has been slated as a cure-all and has become the foundation of holistic medicine, while also playing a significant role in mainstream medicine.
What is CBD (And How Does it Differ from Traditional Cannabis)?
CBD is a naturally occurring cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids are the active compounds in cannabis that physiologically affect users. Along with THC, CBD is one of the most prominent cannabinoids, accounting for up to 40% of cannabis extracts, depending on the plant.
Researchers have identified 113 different cannabinoids in cannabis, and all have unique properties with a range of effects — some of which are still not yet fully understood. Different compounds are beneficial for different physical and mental ailments. For example, cannabigerol (CBG) has antibiotic, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties. CBD shares some of these benefits such as being anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving, while possessing additional properties such as anti-anxiety.
Hemp — cannabis plants containing little to no THC — still contain a high amount of CBD. These are the plants bred for CBD consumption. Hemp and cannabis plants can be bred to produce higher or lower amounts of individual cannabinoids. Within cannabis plants, there are two main categories: indica and sativa.
Higher concentrations of CBD are found in indica strains of cannabis, whereas THC is more prevalent in sativa strains. Sativa-heavy strains produce a euphoric and stimulating effect and indica-heavy strains produce more relaxation and are more therapeutic due to having a higher CBD content.
For many years, there has been a misconception that CBD is a psychoactive substance like THC and that it will get users “high,” but science and personal anecdotes will tell you that isn’t the case.
The Endocannabinoid System
During the cannabis research explosion of the mid-1990s, scientists discovered that humans, as well as all mammals, have an endogenous endocannabinoid system, or ECS. In fact, cannabinoid receptors outnumber most other receptors in the brain. The ECS is crucial for healthy brain functioning, regulating and controlling many of our most critical bodily functions such as learning and memory, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, inflammatory and immune responses, and eating. The cellular receptors act as traffic controllers in the brain, mediating other neuroreceptors and telling them to speed up or slow down depending on external situations or stimuli. Because of its role in mediating appetite, mood, and temperature, the endocannabinoid system is crucial to maintaining homeostasis in the body.
CB1 and CB2 receptors are the neuroreceptors of the endocannabinoid system that respond to the compounds found in cannabis. The majority of CB1 receptors are localized to the hippocampus and amygdala — the memory, fear, and emotion centers of the brain. They are affected primarily by THC, which is why users sometimes experience an anxiety-producing high.
CB2 receptors are mainly found in immune cells, lymphoid tissue, and peripheral nerve terminals. CBD binds to CB2 receptors. This is why CBD produces anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety effects.
In 2008, the journal of Neuroendocrinology Letters published a paper that suggested some of the chronic health problems many people face may be due to an underlying endocannabinoid deficiency, including migraines and fibromyalgia.
Ways to Consume CBD
CBD is available in a number of different strengths and companies offer a variety of inhalation/ingestion methods. How people consume CBD comes down to individual preference. The most common ways to consume the supplement include vaporizing, smoking, and eating.
Smoking is the most traditional way to consume hemp. Flower containing CBD can be smoked using a pipe, water pipe, or rolled into a hemp cigarette using rolling papers or a tobacco-based wrap.
Because CBD has a lower boiling point (160-180°C) than the flowers and leaves that contain the compound, CBD can be vaporized, a method that heats the plant to a lower level than that of smoking. Vaporizing CBD is often seen as a healthier alternative to smoking, as carcinogenic compounds produced during combustion, such as benzene, naphthalene, and toluene are not released from the plant. Oil extracts with high levels of CBD are also available and often come in pre-filled cartridges powered by a lithium-ion battery.
Edibles combine the advantages of vaporizing with the ability to strictly control dosage. CBD, like THC and many other compounds found within cannabis, is not readily available to be converted by the body when ingested. Instead, CBD must be decarboxylated – a process that involves heating the compound to its boiling point to activate it, and bound to a fat source such as butter or milk. The CBD-infused fat is then used to create gummies, brownies, or other foods.
Dosing is calculated by body weight, but factors including pain level, tolerance, and the purpose for using CBD should be considered when deciding the right dose. Sensitivity to the compound’s effects should also be considered. Although there is no recommended dose set by the FDA, general guidelines set by users and CBD producers have been established. On average for someone weighing 150 pounds, a light dose is 15-30 mg, a medium dose is 31-74 mg, and a heavy dose is 75-90 mg.
CBD-centered establishments began popping up like Starbucks across the U.S. in 2019 following the passing of the Farm Bill the previous year. The legislation removed hemp — cannabis that contains a low concentration of THC — from the Controlled Substances Act, freeing the market up to distribute cannabis flower and derivatives under 0.3 % THC to the masses.
Although THC is federally banned and considered a schedule one drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the Farm Bill enables growers, manufacturers, and distributors to cultivate and sell CBD for commercial purposes. However, it may be surprising to hear that CBD is not FDA approved yet even though it’s legal according to federal law.
Companies can still sell CBD products if they adhere to regulations set by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. FDA approval may be on the horizon, but the agency is likely dragging its feet on the matter due to concern that CBD products will include misleading or unsubstantiated information on its packaging such as claims the product can cure cancer or other medical conditions.
Lack of FDA regulation means consumers need to be vigilant and research the companies from which they are buying. Lab testing for CBD has shown inconsistencies in labeling and dosages.
Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University recently found synthetically derived delta-8 THC products lacked quality control and safety standards.
“What we know — and we have analyzed lots of products — is that there’s no quality assurance for the final product,” said Michelle Peace, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU. “In some of the products we have evaluated, they are two, three, 10 times more concentrated with delta-8 than what the package claims. That can create, potentially, a pretty scary experience for the consumer, particularly if they are inexperienced.”
Benefits of CBD
Despite potentially misleading product information, there are peer-reviewed studies on the benefits of CBD.
One study found that CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties significantly reduce chronic nerve pain and inflammation. Patients with multiple sclerosis have seen pain relief and reduced spasticity from CBD treatment.
Cancer-related pain and chemotherapy side effects such as nausea and loss of appetite have long been known to be reduced with CBD medication. Patients experiencing mental health issues associated with the disease also reported improvement after taking CBD.
“There’s also a growing body of evidence suggesting that CBD may actually facilitate cancer cell death and slow the spread of aggressive cancer cells for breast cancer, although the research is still in early stages,” according to cbdoil.org.
A recent Australian study showed that CBD could increase VO2 max — the amount of oxygen the body absorbs while exercising — as well as aid in muscle recovery.
“CBD appears to alter some key physiological and psychological responses to aerobic exercise without impairing performance,” the researchers stated.