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CBD: Everything You Need to Know About Cannabidiol


CBD: Everything You Need to Know About Cannabidiol

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a compound derived from the hemp plant, a member of the cannabis family. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the well-known psychoactive compound in marijuana that produces a psychoactive effect, CBD provides therapeutic benefits without a high. These properties are the reason that CBD has become so popular. Highlighted below is an overview of the history of cannabis, a discussion of the science behind its properties, and advice on how it can be incorporated into your wellness routine.

cbd oil and buds

History of Cannabis

The history of CBD starts with the cultivation of hemp, which is valued for its highly nutritious seeds and fibers that can be used to make paper and clothes. Evidence suggests that hemp may have been cultivated on the island of Taiwan as early as 8000 BCE.1

Apart from its functional uses, three distinct species and seven subspecies of cannabis were used as medicines throughout the ancient world, from Europe and the Middle East to China. It didn’t take early herbalists long to recognize the benefits of this fascinating family of plants.

The Chinese word for cannabis is DaMa which loosely translates to “great spice that causes numbness.” The modern Chinese term for anesthesia, MaZui, is a derivative of DaMa and translates to “intoxication by cannabis”—a testament to the central role this herb has played for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).2

Today, cannabis is at the center of an exciting wave of scientific discovery. Research exploring the natural compounds found in cannabis has led to an even greater understanding of the inner workings of the human body. For instance, until recently, little was known about the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which has essential functions in regulating the central nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, endocrine system, immune system, and all major organs. Its primary function is to maintain homeostasis.3

The discovery of cannabinoid (CBN) in the 1930s, CBD in 1940, and THC in 1964, and the information researchers learned from studying these compmounds allowed Ralph Mechoulam, PhD, and his colleagues to isolate two major endocannabinoids that are naturally produced by the body—anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol—in the early and mid-1990s.4

The discovery of the ECS allowed for a greater understanding of the actions of cannabinoids, as well as insight into the role that the ECS plays in maintaining overall health. To better understand the therapeutic benefits of CBD, it is first important to understand the  functions of the ECS, as well as the mechanisms by which CBD interacts with this system to produce wide-ranging effects.


What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

As mentioned previously, the ECS has essential functions in regulating many organ systems, ultimately maintaining homeostasis, or stability in the body's internal environment. The ECS is composed of three primary components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.5

Endocannabinoids are molecules produced by the body as needed that bind to receptors in the ECS to help it execute its primary functions. The two key endocannabinoids that have been identified thus far are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG).

There are two primary types of receptors in the ECS to which these endocannabinoids can bind: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily located in the central nervous system. These receptors can produce long and short-term changes in neurotransmissions and also affect mood and sleep duration.6 CB2 receptors are found throughout the peripheral nervous system, especially in immune cells and the gastrointestinal tract. When the body experiences inflammation, CB2 receptors work to restore homeostasis. CB2 receptors are also found in the skin, so an individual experiencing ECS dysfunction may show symptoms like psoriasis or eczema.

Once the endocannabinoids have carried out their functions through interactions with CB1 and CB2 receptors, enzymes break them down. The two primary enzymes that carry out this process are fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which breaks down 2-AG.7

Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoids are the active compounds in cannabis. From this large family,  the two best-known cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Though structurally similar, these compounds interact with the ECS in very different ways, leading to different effects.

thc and cbd oil

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

THC is the cannabinoid well-known for its psychoactive effects, which produce feelings of deep relaxation and euphoria. THC causes this distinct reaction through the way it activates CB1/CB2 receptors. THC is a CB1/CB2 receptor partial agonist, meaning it binds to these receptors and mimics the effects of endogenous cannabinoids to a slightly lesser extent. THC also has a high binding affinity for these receptors, meaning it can spend more time at the binding site, resulting in prolonged effects. THC binding to CB1/CB2 receptors activates neurons in the brain that affect mood, appetite, and pain.8

Cannabidiol (CBD)

CBD reacts differently with ECS receptors and therefore produces a different physiological response than THC. Since CBD is not a psychoactive active compound, like THC, it provides therapeutic benefits without a "high." The mechanisms for how CBD achieves therapeutic effects are still being explored; however, there are a range of potential mechanisms that have been supported by several studies.

First, it is important to note that, unlike THC, CBD is not an agonist for CB1/CB2 receptors and has a low binding affinity for these receptors. In fact, CBD antagonizes the actions of CB1/CB2 receptor agonists, meaning that it counteracts the actions that CB1/CB2 receptor agonists would have.9

Furthermore, CBD inhibits FAAH, which, as mentioned previously, breaks down the endocannabinoid anandamide. This inhibition of FAAH by CBD allows for increased anandamide levels and, therefore, more prolonged activation of CB1/CB2 receptors. In other words, CBD works to modulate other activities that affect the function of CB1 and CB2 receptors. This activation of CB1 and CB2 receptors allows for wide-ranging benefits like better mood, reduced aches and pains, and maintenance of healthy immune system function.10

Scientifically-Demonstrated Benefits of CBD

The modulating effects of CBD on CB1 and CB2 receptors have been linked to a range of health benefits. Highlighted below are some of the most noteworthy benefits of CBD backed by clinical studies.

woman leaning on wall stressed out-min (1)

Relieves Stress

While stress is completely normal, many individuals suffer from prolonged episodes of stress that keep the body in a perpetual state of panic. Constant stress can negatively affect the body physiologically and psychologically. For instance, constant stress weakens the immune system and can contribute to more severe mental health conditions.

One of the most notable ways that CBD works to reduce stress is by maintaining higher anandamide levels, which is known as the "joy" molecule. This compound is only produced in the body when it is needed and is typically quickly broken down by the enzyme FAAH. CBD provides mood-boosting action by inhibiting FAAH and therefore allowing for more prolonged anandamide action.11

Another study focused on the effects of CBD on remedying stress symptoms using the Vogel Conflict Test. This test determines the stress-reducing effects of a substance. In this test, a subject is provided either water or food, and every time they receive it, they are mildly punished. The more the subject eats or drinks during the tests, the better their capacity to deal with stress and the more stress-relieving the substance. The results of the test demonstrated that CBD can reduce stress symptoms.12

man at desk with back pain-min

Reduces Minor Aches and Pains

The body experiences pain as a result of chemical processes in the brain that occur in response to nerve signals from the body. In the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex plays an important role in processing this information and managing the experience of pain because of the relationship between pain and emotional processing.

CBD has been found to modulate the activity of the anterior cingulate cortex, and therefore, potentially modulate pain relief.13 One study explored CBD's ability to manage clinical pain in rat models. The subjects studied had mechanical allodynia, where pain occurs from even the slightest touch, which was intended to mirror surgical incisions. The researchers injected different doses of CBD intraperitoneally to determine the effects of CBD on pain. The study demonstrated that CBD influenced several dimensions of the rats' response to surgical incisions and established that CBD exerts pain-relieving effects through interaction with the anterior cingulate cortex. Additionally, the study showed that CBD may differentially affect sensorial versus affective perceptions of pain. 15

woman with back pain -min

Regulates Epilepsy and SeizuresCBD

Epilepsy is a term used to describe a variety of conditions characterized by seizures. An epileptic seizure can be mild or severe enough to be life-threatening. CBD and cannabinoids have shown promise in controlling seizures and preventing neurodegeneration. Reports from a survey of parents of children with epilepsy showed that CBD-enriched cannabis may be a promising treatment for pediatric treatment-resistant epilepsy. Of the 19 cases examined, 13 children were diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome, four with Doose Syndrome, and one with Lennox-Gestaut syndrome. By the end of the survey, 16 of the 19 exhibited a significant reduction in seizure occurrence while on cannabinoid treatments. Eight out of 19 reported the seizures had been reduced by 80% and 6 reported 25 to 60% seizure reduction. Two of the individuals reported that their children were seizure-free after the treatments. Other positive effects reported in the study included improved mood, better sleep, and heightened alertness.18

In a press release dated June 25, 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug derived from the Cannabis sativa plant: epidiolex.19 Epidiolex is an oral solution of cannabidiol (CBD) that is approved for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy. It’s the first FDA-approved drug for the treatment of seizures in Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut Syndromes. In clinical trials leading up to the approval of this drug, a total of 689 people with Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut Syndromes (LSG) were treated with epidiolex, a plant-based CBD extract. During their treatment, patients continued to take their other seizure medications. Researchers found a significant reduction in drop-seizure frequency in both treatment groups when compared with the placebo.20 Though more clinical trials are needed to determine what effect CBD has on individuals with seizure conditions, other preliminary studies have found similarly promising results as the epidiolex clinical trials.21

woman with neck pain

man sleeping in bed

Allows for Maintenance of Good Rest

Lack of good quality sleep can compromise physical and psychological health.22 Restful sleep is most commonly disrupted by stress. CBD may offer stress relief by increasing anandamide levels in the body. CBD also interacts with serotonin receptors, which may improve mood. By reducing stress and boosting mood, CBD reduces one of the greatest obstacles to getting good sleep.23, 24

Pain and discomfort can also prevent a good night's sleep. As discussed previously, CBD has been shown to relieve minor aches and pains, which may make it is easier to fall and stay asleep. While high-dose CBD has a sedative effect, a low dose of CBD has a very different effect in that it has been associated with increased wakefulness. Increased wakefulness during the day may help improve the quality of sleep at night and establish healthy parameters for the daily sleep-wake cycle.25

CBD Oil Production Process

One of the most common CBD products is CBD oil. This oil is typically produced from hemp plants that are selected and cultivated because of their high CBD content. Additionally, these plants typically contain very little or no THC, meaning they can provide therapeutic benefits without a "high."

person studying hemp plant

Cultivating Hemp

All members of the cannabis family are dioecious, meaning there are distinct male and female plants, each with their own characteristics. Female plants produce the buds or flowers of the cannabis plants that contain trichomes across their resinous surface. The resin in these trichomes contains 95% of the plant's cannabinoids. The stem, leaves, and seeds of the plant may contain trace amounts of cannabinoids, but not enough for them to be suitable sources of CBD. Hemp seeds are highly nutritious, however, containing essential amino acids, protein, omega-6, and other nutrients.26

Extracting CBD

Once the CBD-rich plant parts have been harvested, there are several ways to extract the CBD. Each extraction method has its advantages and disadvantages that are important to be aware of. It is especially important to avoid products that use toxic substances like hexane or butane as solvents. These products may contain residues with harmful health benefits. Some CBD extraction methods that are considered safer are outlined below.

CO2 Extraction

This extraction method uses high-pressure carbon dioxide at very low temperatures. The process allows the most beneficial elements of the oil to be isolated and preserved for future consumption. This is the most expensive and thorough process. Therefore, CBD oils made from CO2 extraction are high-priced but also the purest products available.27

Grain Alcohol

Grain alcohol can also be used for CBD oil extraction, but this method also damages some of the constituents that contribute to the benefits of the oil. However, grain alcohol extraction is inexpensive and can be achieved quickly. For this extraction method, grain alcohol is boiled in a flask. As a gas, the alcohol rises through a cooling condenser. Then, the alcohol condenses and drips through the hemp material. The cannabinoids dissolve in the alcohol and make their way to a collecting flask while hemp leaves and other insoluble material remain in the collection system.28

Olive Oil

This may be a surprise for many, but olive oil can be used to extract CBD because it can dissolve and absorb the cannabinoids from the plant. This is the safest method of extracting CBD. First, the leaves are crushed and ground to allow for more contact with the olive oil. The powder is then added to boiling olive oil. The mixture is allowed to simmer and cool down. Then, the extract can be filtered out.29 While this method is safe and inexpensive, olive oil is not as strong a solvent as grain alcohol. Therefore, the resulting extract contains lower cannabinoid concentrations. Additionally, CBD-infused olive oil cannot be exposed to sunlight.

Types of CBD Products

The following section provides a closer look at the range of CBD products that is currently available. Additionally, it offers important pointers for navigating the market to ensure that you find a quality product that best suits your needs.

CBD Isolate

CBD isolates, also called crystals, contain almost 99% pure CBD and are therefore thought to provide the most potent health benefits. These isolates can be vaporized, crafted into a tincture, or cooked into edibles. However, placing CBD isolates under the tongue is most effective as this avoids metabolism by the liver, and therefore increases CBD bioavailability.30

CBD Topicals and Salves

CB1 and CB2 receptors are abundantly found in the skin. CBD topicals have been shown to be highly effective for reducing local aches and pain. In addition to creams and salves, there are also soaps, shampoos, and an entire array of natural skincare products that offer some of the topical benefits of CBD.31


CBD wax is designed to be “dabbed” in a dab rig and vaporized. When CBD wax is applied to a hot surface, it vaporizes. The user then breathes in the CBD vapor.32 The advantages of this method include an especially rapid delivery method and a reduced learning curve in finding the best CBD concentration for personal needs.

CBD Edibles

CBD edibles exist in just about any form you can imagine. In fact, there are even bistros and specialty bakeries that offer CBD-infused treats and meals. These can also be ordered online in the form of brownies, cookies, gummies, chocolates, or potato chips.37  Note that laws about the legality of CBD edibles are not always the same as other forms of CBD, so be sure to check that you are in compliance with the laws in your area before choosing to try these products.

CBD Pills, Capsules, and Tinctures

CBD can also be found in pill or capsule form and offers a discreet option for supplementation. Because CBD oil is fat-soluble, these should be taken with a meal. Tinctures offer a sublingual delivery system that won’t be metabolized as quickly as pills or capsules.

medicinal hemp use

Important Considerations for CBD Products

Recently, more states are legalizing CBD or CBD-infused products. As such, the demand for these products is increasing each day. However, the sudden influx of products has also produced a wide range of products designed to exploit an unassuming market with inferior products. To accrue a larger customer pool, these merchants ride the wave of hype. Many of these products can be identified by the inflated claims they make about the benefits attributed to CBD and cannabinoids in general. You will find age-defying CBD face creams and tinctures to summon the love of your life. Most of these claims lie far beyond the scope of clinical observations. To ensure you avoid these vendors on your way to effective natural remedies, follow the pointers below when selecting your products. Also, don’t miss the section on the legalities of CBD, which features guidelines for legal CBD use based on local laws.

Choose High Quality Over Low Prices

Modern technology has ushered in a golden age of consumerism. Today, just about every need is a few clicks away. This has increased competition among suppliers, and everyone is vying for the most economical routes to their profits. What does this mean for the health enthusiast looking for effective products? It could mean that companies with inferior products may be spending the most on marketing and filling up the top spaces in Google search results. If you were to Google “buy CBD products,” you will also find options that claim to regenerate scar tissue, fix ingrown toenails, and a host of other outlandish benefits—these are sometimes fairly priced as well. The way to avoid falling prey to these claims begins with knowing exactly what you are looking for. Discussing your needs and expectations with a qualified health professional can shed some light on this topic. After that, look for products with high-quality production, reputable raw materials, and high concentrations of pure CBD. Lower concentrations may indicate the presence of foreign substances which could diminish efficacy at best and carry toxins at worst. Creating a quality product that extracts CBD without trace elements of other organic compounds requires cutting-edge technology and costly equipment. This is why low cost should not be the deciding factor when selecting your CBD products as it may be indicative of an inferior product.

Study Product Labels

A search into CBD oils will yield a wide range of potential products, some of which may seem similar but are very different, even legally. There are CBD oils, hemp seed oils, hemp CBD oils, cannabis CBD oils, etc. Knowing exactly what you are looking for will help you sort through the wide range of options and go directly to the products you need. Once again, don’t make decisions based on the benefits listed but rather based on the contents of the products themselves.

Make Sure Your Oil Is Not Intoxicating

Remember that THC is an intoxicating psychoactive compound, while CBD is not. Because of this, it is essential that you select products that contain no THC if you hope to avoid intoxicating effects from your regular supplementation. Furthermore, most legal restrictions on cannabis use hinge on THC content. Products that contain only CBD are typically not as restricted as those with THC.

Legalities of CBD in the U.S.

Highlighted below are the legalities of recreational and medicinal CBD use updated as of August 2020.

Recreational Use

In 2018, the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, which made hemp legal by federal law. This placed hemp in the category of agricultural commodities, rather than controlled substances. The Senate also introduced Further the Hemp Farming Act as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. This removed DEA authority over hemp and gave individual states the authority to preside over hemp cultivation.38 It should be noted that The Hemp Farming Act is considered the greatest step toward changing perspective on the hemp industry.

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