What is CBD and how does CBD work?
Everybody is talking about CBD. Everyone has questions, and everyone is making claims. Thirty seconds searching the latest news and you’ll see conflicting claims about what CBD can do, who should use it, even how legal it is. On any given day, that search can throw up results as varied as “CBD reduces seizures by 42%” to “a little CBD can improve your sex life.”
So what is CBD? Is it a lifestyle product, or is it a new wonder drug? Is it safe and legal, or is it just a byproduct of an illegal narcotic? How does it work? What can it treat? Who can use it?
You’ve got questions. In this deep dive, we’ll start to answer them. Starting with the most obvious question.
What is CBD?
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, CBD (also known as cannabidiol) is made from the cannabis plant.
Cannabis contains dozens of chemicals, including over 80 cannabinoids. These cannabinoids have a range of effects on your body. There’s the infamous THC, which is the chemical which is a psychoactive drug and an appetite stimulant – meaning it makes you high and it makes you hungry. There’s THCA which hangs around in your bloodstream showing up on drug tests, CBG which can reduce colitis in some lab rodents, and CBV which does absolutely nothing at all.
And then there’s CBD. Cannabidiol.
CBD is one of the active chemicals in the cannabis or hemp plant, but unlike THC it doesn’t have any psychoactive effects. Instead, CBD interacts with the body’s cannabinoid receptors and produces a wide range of effects.
What those effects are is still a matter of some debate. Anecdotal evidence suggests that CBD can help to reduce pain, anxiety, depression and stress – all while boosting the immune system. But the anecdotal evidence is only scratching the surface. The medical profession is intrigued by the potential of CBD to treat a whole range of maladies, and studies are being undertaken all over the world.
Many of these studies have been highly enthusiastic about the potential of CBD, but reluctance to study the byproduct of a controlled drug means that these studies tend to be small. In the medical community, the jury is still out. But as we’ll see below, some CBD users swear by cannabidiol for a wide range of reasons.
What is CBD – Summary: CBD or cannabidiol is a chemical from the cannabis plant which is thought to have a range of health-promoting qualities.
How Does CBD Work?
You may have been surprised earlier when we mentioned that CBD interacts with your body’s cannabinoid receptors. That’s right, your body has specific chemistry that reacts with cannabinoids.
These receptors form what’s called the endocannabinoid system, and react to cannabinoids made within your body, and plant cannabinoids that you ingest.
CB1 receptors are mainly located in your brain and central nervous system, but are present in smaller numbers in a number of major organs such as your lungs, liver and heart.
CB2 receptors are found within your immune system, your pain receptors and your digestive system.
Finally, CB3 receptors are triggered by trauma to your body, such as injury, muscular strains or persistent aches.
Like all of the systems which make up your body, this endocannabinoid system needs to be balanced. When it becomes imbalanced, you’ll experience problems regulating your mood, appetite, memory and pain sensation.
CBD supplements activate these receptors in the same way as your body’s natural endocannabinoids, or plant cannabinoids you’d find in smaller numbers in foods or from other sources.
By triggering these receptors, CBD helps your body to self-regulate and find a balance (homeostasis). It’s believed that this can counteract symptoms ranging from anxiety to heightened sensitivity to pain.
In-depth studies are being carried out into how CBD can be used medically to treat more specific symptoms and illnesses, which is why researchers are using CBD as an experimental cancer treatment, but as far as CBD supplements are concerned you’ll see a broader approach to balancing the endocannabinoid system.
How Does CBD Work – Summary: Your body has specialised receptors which react to CBD. When CBD supplements interact with these receptors, they bring your body closer to homeostasis.
How is CBD Made?
All CBD products start with crystalised, isolated cannabidiol. This “pure” CBD (which is usually only 99% pure) is extracted from cannabis or hemp plants in a variety of ways. Each one involves taking away as much of the plant’s other component chemicals away to leave nothing but CBD.
The first way CBD is made is using supercritical CO2 extraction. This might sound impressive, but it’s pretty much the same way that you would extract essential oils for health supplements or perfumes – and how you’d make instant coffee.
This method uses pressure and temperature, cooling carbon dioxide and pressuring it to over 10,000 psi. This “supercritical” CO2 is then passed through a closed loop extractor where it breaks down the hemp into its constituent chemicals. These are then separated and crystalised, leaving a pure CBD powder.
The second method is used on much smaller scales, and produces much lower quality CBD. The so-called “ethanol and oil” method involves mixing hemp with ethanol, filtering out chlorophyll and other non-soluble impurities, and then mixing with olive or canola oil. The end result is a low quality CBD oil with a lower purity and usually an illegal amount of THC.
On an industrial scale, it’s the first method which is practical, reliable and widely used. While it’s illegal to grow cannabis in the UK, you can import CBD as long as it’s pure and certified, meaning British distributors are free to purchase cannabidiol from American and EU hemp farms.
How Is CBD Made – Summary: By taking the hemp plant and removing the plant. On an industrial scale, this is done using a process perfected by perfume makers and coffee growers.
Is CBD Legal?
This is a pressing question for many CBD users and retailers alike. There is some confusion amongst the general population about the legality of cannabis, and the legality of cannabis-derived products such as CBD.
Let’s tackle the first one. Despite a laissez-faire attitude to prosecuting cannabis users, cannabis is still a class B illegal drug in the United Kingdom, meaning that it is illegal to grow, sell or possess.
The reason behind this is the high content of the psychoactive THC within the cannabis plant. It’s this chemical which is illegal, and which is used recreationally throughout the country.
And that’s where the confusion over CBD stems from. Because even though CBD is derived from an illegal plant, it contains practically zero THC and has no psychoactive properties.
As such, “any product containing CBD alone is not illegal.”
Problems can creep in when it comes to the purity of CBD isolates. Because even the most stringently processed cannabidiol is only around 99.5% pure, it may contain trace amounts of illegal THC, making it supposedly illegal to possess, let alone sell.
But this is not the case. In fact, as long as high levels of purity can be demonstrated, CBD can be owned and sold as a supplement.
What it can’t be sold as, is a medicine.
As we mentioned above, medical studies on the effects of CBD are currently small in scope, which means no CBD medicines have been given regulatory approval by the British medical community. That means it’s not possible to market CBD as a medicine.
And that’s where our comments about anecdotal evidence comes in. Because while CBD is not a medicine, and CBD suppliers are forbidden from making any medical claims, no such restriction applies to CBD users.
CBD users who are a very vocal, very enthusiastic community.
Is CBD Legal – Summary: Cannabis is illegal. THC is illegal. CBD, which is a cannabis-derived product which contains almost no THC is legal. But it can’t be marketed as a medicine.
Who Can Benefit from CBD Products?
If you ask the users of CBD supplements, almost anybody can benefit from a touch of CBD in their day-to-day life. Users report a general improvement in wellbeing, and a range of other benefits ranging from a greater feeling of contentment to lessened impact of chronic health conditions.
Medical studies are ongoing to determine just how effective CBD supplements are in the treatment of a wide range of conditions, but CBD users have been incredibly vocal about how supplements have helped in a range of circumstances, including:
Anxiety. Everyone gets nervous. For some of us, a touch of the nerves means discomfort before public speaking, sweaty palms before asking for a raise, or even tension headaches during times of stress. But for some people, anxiety can be a debilitating condition which robs them of the ability to function in day-to-day life.
Because CBD bonds with your CB1 receptors, it can trigger your body to increase serotonin levels, leading to lessened feelings of anxiety. According to CBD users, this can be a life-changing discovery, which allows them to live more confidently.
Fibromyalgia. A little-understood condition, fibromyalgia leaves sufferers in near constant-pain from overactive pain receptors in the body. Even worse, this pain isn’t lessened by pharmaceuticals, and common painkilling drugs can cause a range of side effects which leave sufferers even worse off.
If you think back to the section on how CBD works, you’ll remember that CB2 receptors govern our pain responses. Which could explain why the fibromyalgia community is one of the loudest voices in support of CBD products and supplements, which they say lessens the impact of constant pain and fatigue.
Nausea. Constantly feeling sick is a sure-fire way to ruin your day. From travel and motion sickness through to side effects of medication, there are thousands of reasons that a person may feel continually nauseous. And unfortunately there is very little relief available to nausea sufferers.
Or at least, there was very little relief. Large numbers of CBD users report using supplements to manage their nausea, and the medical community is seriously investigating CBD as a nausea suppressant and an appetite stimulant – especially for those suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments.
The potential benefits of CBD supplements cover far more than just these three maladies – as our recent post on the top eight benefits of CBD shows. As the testimony of CBD users and advocates shows, anyone suffering from generalised pain, discomfort or fatigue – as well as anxiety and depression sufferers – may see an improvement in their condition as a result of CBD use.
Who Can Benefit from CBD – Summary: If anecdotal evidence is to be believed, anyone suffering chronic pain or nervousness can benefit from CBD supplements, although medical studies on the veracity of these claims are still in progress.
"A Little CBD can improve your sex life"
Does CBD Have any Side Effects?
By now many readers will be wondering if there’s a catch. CBD is natural, it’s legal, and there’s a solid scientific basis for the effects which many users report. But as with all chemicals which affect the body, there’s always the risk of side effects.
Testing has been undertaken on CBD to ensure that it is entirely safe for human consumption. Online healthcare portal WebMD summarises those findings as follows:
CBD doses of up to 300mg per day have been used safely for up to 6 months. Higher doses of 1200-1500mg per day have been used safely for up to four weeks.
But while CBD is safe for use, many long-term users have reported a number of minor side effects, all of which should be carefully considered before you choose a CBD supplement:
Dry mouth: one of the processes affected by your endocannabinoid system is the production of saliva. In some cases it has been noticed that the use of CBD triggers CB1 and CB2 receptors in the mouth and inhibits saliva production, leading to mouth dryness and an increased thirst.
As such, if you are trying a CBD supplement for the first time, you may wish to ensure you have plenty of access to cold water or other drinks.
Lowered blood pressure: Some first-time CBD users report feeling light headed or dizzy. This isn’t due to any psychoactive effects or stray THC in the CBD supplements they use. Instead, it’s a side effect of cannabidiol. CBD is a vasodilator. It makes your arteries and blood vessels wider, which means your blood flows more with much less pressure.
A side effect of this lower blood pressure is the blood rushing from your head if you stand up too quickly. That said, 16 million people in the UK have high blood pressure and could do with bringing it down to avoid the risk of stroke.
Drowsiness: Large numbers of CBD users take a cannabidiol supplement to help them sleep, and many insomnia sufferers believe that CBD oil mitigates their symptoms. So it should really come as no surprise to learn that CBD use can in fact make you drowsy. As such it’s recommended that first time users do not take supplements before operating heavy machinery, or before setting off on a long drive. Over time, you’ll learn whether or not CBD induces drowsiness, and be able to prepare yourself for the effects.
There are also two types of people who should not take CBD products due to the risk of potential adverse effects. The first are pregnant and breast feeding women. While there is no research to suggest that CBD use can be harmful to babies, we would always advise erring on the side of caution until a full study has been undertaken.
The second type of people are those with Parkinson’s disease. A very early report has shown preliminary evidence that cannabidiol can make muscle movement and tremors worse in Parkinson’s patients.
As with all supplements, it’s important that you draw your own conclusions based upon your own research before you commit to using any CBD products, whether it’s a CBD oil, a topical cream, or a CBD vape.
Does CBD Have any Side Effects – Summary: CBD use does have a number of usually benign side effects such as dry mouth and drowsiness. However, CBD should not be used by pregnant women, breast feeding mothers or Parkinson’s patients.
What CBD Products Are Available?
By now you should feel confident about whether or not CBD supplements are for you. We’ve covered the legal issues, the biochemical science, and the effects. But we’re still talking about CBD as a vague chemical supplement. It’s time to look at some of the CBD products available on the market, how they are used, and how they interact with your endocannabinoid system.
Vape Liquids: An increasingly common CBD supplement is the nicotine-free CBD e-liquid. As with all e-liquids, the CBD vape liquid is added to the tank of a vape pen or ecigarette, where it is vapourised by a coil and inhaled. Upon inhalation, the CBD is able to react with CB1 receptors within the lungs themselves. Inhalation also makes it easier for CBD to enter the bloodstream, interacting with receptors throughout the whole body.
CBD Oil / Tongue Drops: As CBD dissolves into oils fairly easily, many users choose to make use of a CBD tincture or tongue drop. CBD is mixed into a flavoured oil, and is deposited onto the tongue using a dropper, where it is partially absorbed into the bloodstream through the mouth, and partially swallowed to spread throughout the digestive system.
Capsules: Some users choose CBD capsules over tinctures for a number of reasons. First, a dose can be more accurately measured by taking a set number of 50mg or 100mg capsules. Secondly, swallowing a CBD capsule is quick, simple and tasteless – something that can be done in seconds before or after a meal.
CBD Oils, Balms and Butters: CBD can be absorbed through the skin, where it can interact with the skin’s CB2 receptors and any CB3 receptors present at areas of trauma or pain. Because of this, many users choose a range of topical CBD products such as CBD body oils and CBD balms. Many also choose CBD bath products, reporting that the presence of CBD helps them to relax more thoroughly.
Pure CBD: It is also possible to buy powdered cannabidiol in a pure form. This isolate CBD can be used to create your own vape liquids or tinctures, or can be measured out and mixed into food. As CBD is tasteless and odourless, the possibilities for use are wide and varied.
CBD can be inhaled, swallowed or applied topically. In each case, it connects with different receptors throughout your endocannabinoid system. Because of the flexibility of the body’s own endocannabinoid system, CBD products can take nearly any form, allowing users to find a supplement that suits their requirements perfectly.
CBD is certain to remain a hot-button topic for years to come. As more and more consumers experiment with CBD products to treat chronic and recurring complaints, as more and more researchers study cannabidiol’s effectiveness as a medical treatment option, and as more and more journalists chase a quick story about “high street stores peddling weed,” the conversation will continue to evolve.
And the questions will remain.
People will still ask exactly what CBD is, how it works and where it comes from. They’ll wonder who CBD is for, if it has any side effects, and what sort of products are available.
You’ll know that CBD is one of the component chemicals of the hemp plant, that it interacts with your body’s endocannabinoid system, and that it’s processed to remove nearly all traces of THC.
You’ll know that it’s recommended by sufferers of fibromyalgia and anxiety, that it can make you drowsy, and that you can vape it, swallow it, or rub it on tired and aching muscles.
Because while the conversations and questions about this mysterious “wonder drug” will be repeated for years to come, you already know the answers.
For you, CBD has been thoroughly demystified. And you can confidently make the choice to use CBD as you see fit.