Cannabidiol—CBD for short—is taking the world by storm. But why? With how stigmatized marijuana is in the United States, it seems surprising that so many people are latching onto it.
CBD is only one of 120 compounds called “cannabinoids” found in cannabis. Like its famous cousin, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD offers numerous health benefits—but it does not induce a high. As such, people are turning to CBD products to alleviate symptoms from physical ailments like pain and inflammation as well as mental ones like anxiety and depression.
Due to its relationship with marijuana, though, CBD is still not entirely accepted. Hopefully, this will change in the near future, because CBD’s popularity is only growing.
A History of CBD: Where Does it Come From?
People have reaped the health benefits of cannabis for thousands of years, even if they didn’t understand where its properties originated from. According to CBD Origin, the first documented instance of someone using cannabis for medical purposes is Chinese Emperor Sheng Nung in 2737 BCE when he drank a cannabis-infused tea to treat an assortment of maladies.
While people continued to use cannabis throughout the following centuries, modern medicine did not begin to take the plant seriously—at least, in documented cases in the US and Europe—until an Irish researcher in 1839 named William B. O’Shaughnessy published a highly controversial study that delved into cannabis’s health benefits.
O’Shaughnessy’s investigation paved the way for a British chemist, Robert S. Cahn, to discover an individual cannabinoid almost a hundred years later thanks to advancements in technology and research methods. He identified the structure of cannabinol (CBN) in 1940, and an American chemist named Roger Adams successfully isolated the first cannabinoid, CBD, two years later. Adam’s research also discovered THC.
Scientists continued to study cannabis in a health context, but they could not easily identify which molecule was responsible for which effect (such as reducing pain, inducing relaxation, etc.). In 1963 and 1964, Dr. Raphel Mechoulam successfully determined CBD’s and THC’s stereochemistry, respectively. Dr. Mechoulam’s research revealed which particular cannabis molecules were accountable for its various health and euphoric effects.
All of a sudden CBD products started showing up everywhere, with oils and gummies becoming the most popular products early on.
The Best Products
Not all CBD products work the same. One person may require a higher dosage than another, so it is important for consumers to know how much they need according to their symptoms (it’s common to start with a low dosage and gradually increase until reaching the desired effectiveness).
The kind of CBD product also makes a difference in how quickly it delivers its benefits. Individuals using CBD for mental disorders may prefer to ingest it as an oil or tincture. Gummies are also advantageous for this; people who need anxiety relief throughout the day can keep a bottle of gummies on their person and take them as needed and inconspicuously. For readers interested in which products are the best in terms of quality and taste, I compiled a comprehensive list of the best CBD gummies based on quality, ingredients, taste, and effectiveness accessible here. I’m a big fan of Verma Farms, due to their social conscious focus , tastiness, their high bar for the organic, pesticide-free hemp they use in their products.
People needing joint or muscle pain relief can take CBD as drops, but they can also opt for lotions and creams (which are popular for localized pain). Individuals should consult with their doctors or CBD experts to determine if oils, vaporizers, edibles, and other products are most suitable for their needs (such as shorter periods of relaxation).
But CBD has not only become a solution for humans, CBD for dogs is now one of the fastest growing trends among pet owners. I researched the best CBD products available for dogs today, with a focus on ingredient quality and anxiety relief. You can find the full list here.
Also important: a history of the endocannabinoid system
So, CBD and other cannabinoids can affect the body in numerous ways—but how? CBD (along with THC, CBN, and more) does not simply induce the effects it does because it has the properties to do so. Instead, it works with the body’s “endocannabinoid system,” which researchers have also found in other mammals.
Wait—endocannabinoid system? Yes, the human body has a system named after cannabis because it was discovered much later than the plant. Melissa Moore from Labroots reports that a government-funded project at the St. Louis University School of Medicine found that mammalian brain receptors have sites that respond to certain cannabinoids. As it turns out, these receptors are the brain’s most abundant kind of neurotransmitter receptor.
Various other researchers, such as teams lead by Lisa Matsuda at the National Institute of Mental Health, and Dr. Lumir Hanus and Dr. Willian Devane with Hebrew University in Jerusalem continued to learn more about how THC and other cannabinoids affect the brain, though rarely with human subjects. Labroots notes:
“In the pursuit of unearthing the metabolic pathways of phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids, scientists came across and unknown molecular signaling systems within the body that is involved in regulating a broad range of biological functions. This system was named the endocannabinoid system (ECS).”
“Endo” means “inside,” while “phyto” refers to “plant.” The body’s endocannabinoid system performs a multitude of tasks, but its supposed ultimate purpose is to maintain homeostasis. Humans have two known (possibly more) kinds of cannabinoid receptors: CB1, which are located in the central nervous system; and CB2, which are located in the peripheral nervous system (extremities as opposed to brain and spinal cord), specialized immune system cells, and the digestive system.
The receptors part of the ECS inform the body when something is off-balance. For example, if a person is overheated, then the ECS plays a vital role in instructing sweat glands to begin producing sweat. Similarly, it tells the stomach to “growl” to indicate hunger when the body is low on energy.
How does CBD work?
The endocannabinoid system helps regulate a number of other essential functions apart from appetite, digestion, and temperature control. These functions include the immune system, inflammation, sleep, fertility, motor control, mood, memory, pain, and pleasurable sensations. In simple terms, when something is wrong, the ECS helps correct it with its network of endocannabinoids, enzymes that break them down, and receptors.
Therein lies the secret to how CBD products yield such incredible health benefits: ingesting external cannabinoids—namely, phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant—gives the ECS a boost. It’s possible for the body to have an endocannabinoid deficiency, in which case phytocannabinoids are exceptionally advantageous. THC boasts a broad range of health benefits, but its intoxicant qualities create a “high” when it bonds with CB receptors. CBD, on the other hand, does have psychoactive properties, but it does not negatively alter a user’s state of mind while helping the body work toward homeostasis.
What do people use CBD for?
Because a great number of factors contribute to homeostasis, CBD is applicable to many ailments that disrupt the body’s balance. One of CBD’s more famous uses is for physical pain and inflammation, such as joint pain due to arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Similarly, people who use medical marijuana for cancer-related pain may opt for cannabidiol-heavy products instead of THC because it soothes their symptoms without getting them high.
It is common to hear that CBD is not psychoactive, which is misleading. CBD is not an intoxicant, but it does indeed have psychoactive properties—which is why countless people find it beneficial for temporarily alleviating anxiety and depression. Treating these illnesses usually entails pharmaceutical drugs, but untainted and well-made CBD products provide a more natural alternative (some medications can even be addictive, like benzodiazepines, but CBD is not well known to cause addiction). Some people also report taking CBD for other brain-related conditions, including PTSD and insomnia.
There are also many supposed benefits of CBD that people use it for, though such cases lack necessary research (especially in humans). Some studies, though, suggest that cannabidiol can be beneficial for heart health, reducing acne, preventing the spread of cancer, and preventing diabetes. It may also be useful as a substance abuse treatment.
It is important to note that most CBD research is conducted on animals, not humans, so evidence of CBD’s effectiveness often comes from personal anecdotes. The only FDA-approved CBD product in the United States is Epidiolex, which is useful for treating two forms of pediatric epilepsy. While new research is encouraging and personal stories are convincing, keep in mind that CBD’ effects in humans are still under-explored. CBD boasts many health benefits, but it is not an outright cure for any ailment and is only intended to relieve symptoms.
How did CBD become so popular?
It is difficult to pinpoint a moment in time when CBD boomed the way it has. People have been using marijuana to treat pain for a long time, but with marijuana stigmatized the way it is, non-users have been hesitant to try it. It is likely that people nervous to try THC for its health benefits were more ready to accept CBD because it has the advantage of not inducing a high and its marketability as a natural product.
Cannabis-oriented research firm Brightfield Group reports that CBD sales are expected to exceed $5 billion by the end of 2019, which is a 706 percent increase from 2018. Brightfield Group projects that the CBD industry’s total market value could reach as much as $23.7 billion by 2023.
CBD products are also slightly more legal than marijuana for smoking or ingesting. Marijuana is only one kind of cannabis—hemp is another, which has lower THC content. At the end of 2018, the United States passed the Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp. As such, CBD products derived from hemp, not marijuana, is supposedly legal at a federal level as long as they contain equal to or less than .3 percent THC. Individual states, however, are free to make their own laws regarding CBD.
While CBD is in a bit of a legal gray zone, cannabis companies have taken advantage of the fact that it is slightly more legal than marijuana. CBD products now come in all sorts of forms: oils, tinctures, sprays, lotions, edibles, bath bombs, gummies, vapes, and more. CBD is more accessible than it has ever been before, and a rapidly growing number of people are listening to their friends’ testaments and trying it for themselves.
There is also something to be said for CBD’s “newness.” Though people have used cannabis for medicinal purposes for centuries, the identification of cannabidiol as a particular molecule from an often stigmatized plant makes CBD sort of a novelty. In a society where people have understandably lost faith in mainstream healthcare, cannabidiol is separate from big pharma and offers a great deal of promise.
Is CBD just that, though? A novelty? Hopefully and likely not, according to Dr. Esther Blessing from the New York University School of Medicine (Dr. Blessing is coordinating a study regarding treating PTSD and alcohol use disorder with CBD). She tells the New York Times:
“CBD is the most promising drug that has come out for neuropsychiatric diseases in the last 50 years. The reason it is so promising is that it has a unique combination of safety and effectiveness across a very broad range of conditions.”
Despite CBD’s newness to the modern medical landscape—and the fact that cannabis’s legal status makes research difficult in humans—many people feel inclined to trust it. Bear in mind that known side effects, however, include vomiting, nausea, drowsiness, diarrhea, increased anxiety, and changes in mood and appetite. While CBD does appear to be more or less safe, interested individuals should consult with their doctors before adding CBD to their diets.
Celebrities who have publicly endorsed CBD
Many celebrities have also caught wind of the CBD boom. Mandy Moore announced on the red carpet before a Golden Globes event that she was experimenting with CBD for her feet. Dr. Sanjay Gupta voiced his interest in CBD on The Dr. Oz Show. Busy Philipps noted that she is a strong proponent of CBD and THC gummies. Tom Hanks even said:
“The first time I ever tried CBD was to help soothe my anxiety. I was fed up with taking various pills to try and make me ‘better’… It wasn’t how I wanted to live my life anymore. So I gave CBD oil a try. It was a huge relief for me to feel like myself, yet the edge was gone. A bonus to the whole thing was the relief from various aches and pains I have. Especially arthritis in my knees. It immediately alleviated 90 percent of my pain.”
Besides advocacy, other celebrities have funded research or even started their own CBD businesses. Whoopi Goldberg co-founded a CBD brand named Whoopi & Maya, which emphasizes using cannabidiol for menstrual cramps (for which there is precious little relief on the market). Montel Williams, who was diagnosed with MS in 1999, partnered with Cura Cannabis to launch his own CBD company called Lenitiv.
CBD is also known to alleviate symptoms from Parkinson’s disease, in which Michael J. Fox was diagnosed in 1991. His foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, has conducted significant research into helping Parkinson’s patients using marijuana and CBD.
Words of advice: research products before buying
So, once someone interested in CBD has consulted with their doctor and they believe CBD is worth a try, they simply need to get online and purchase the cheapest and most appealing option, right? Unfortunately not—the truth is that the CBD landscape can be dangerous. For all of the molecule’s benefits, it can backfire if people are not vigilant about the specific products they buy.
The reason for this is that the industry is dangerously unregulated. Though the FDA has only approved one brand of CBD drug, Epidiolex, it is not particularly militant (as of now) about monitoring its sale and usage. It’s unnervingly easy for a business to say that its product contains CBD when, in fact, it contains none at all—or too much, or even synthetic cannabidiol.
CBD products in the US are largely sourced from hemp. Hemp is a bioaccumulator, meaning it absorbs pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxins from the soil and water around it. These chemicals can end up in derived oils, creams, and other products, which can be detrimental to intakers’ health.
When purchasing CBD products, it is imperative for shoppers to pay attention to where a company’s hemp is sourced from. Some hemp farms are near locations with contaminated soil. Many CBD companies in the US do not even grow their own hemp; they purchase products made in Europe and resell it on the US market. Hemp grown overseas can be safe, but it poses a risk because it is not subject to federal or state testing.
When it comes to US-made products, states like Colorado, Oregon, and Kentucky are usually safer bets (Colorado, in particular, has an agricultural program that spot-tests hemp plants while they are still in the ground). However, there is a way for consumers to double-check a CBD product’s purity: by looking for the lab results.
Any legitimate CBD company that cares about its customers, knows its science, and wishes to provide healthy products will have its goods tested with third-party laboratories. These laboratories will test for things including purity, potency, and more, and will publish the results as a certificate of analysis (COA). State governments do not always require CBD companies to initiate this testing; it is each company’s responsibility to arrange it and post the results online. As such, it is a major hint to consumers that if a cannabis retailer does not have its COA (or multiple; it never hurts to have more than one lab test each product) in an easily accessible place, it is not a company worth doing business with. Kazmira provides an education regarding how to read a certificate of analysis here.
Other pieces of advice
Besides looking out for toxins, consumers should also check COAs to see if a label’s specified CBD content is accurate. According to one study from Penn Medicine, 26 percent of surveyed products contained less CBD than the labels indicated, which could negate any intended health benefits. 70 percent of products actually contained more CBD, which has the potential to be dangerous.
Consumers should also pay attention to COAs because certain synthetic cannabinoids have been known to be extremely harmful. Synthetic CBD is often indistinguishable from the original substance and is not inherently dangerous, but a poison outbreak connected to synthetic cannabinoids once affected 52 people in Utah in 2017. These people ingested a compound called 4-CCB (which can be fatal), not actual CBD. There is no law requiring companies to disclose whether they use synthetic CBD or not, so buyers should be wary about what is in their products.
Something else consumers should keep in mind is that many experts agree that CBD works best when in conjunction with CBD. CBD on its own—often sold and labeled as “CBD isolate—does not provide as many benefits or as effectively as “full-spectrum” varieties. Companies often sell CBD isolate to avoid any THC legalities they are uncertain of or to minimize the likelihood of their products making customers test positive on a drug test, but a small amount of THC helps CBD interact with the body. There is also little research regarding how CBD interacts with other pharmaceutical drugs, so people taking medications should definitely consult with a pharmacist beforehand.
Consumers should also avoid any company that makes claims about its products’ effects. CBD should be used as a treatment for symptoms; it is not a cure for anything, so a company that says otherwise is dangerous. Lisa L. Gill ConsumerReports.org also advises consumers to learn what other label terms mean, such as how the CBD was extracted from the hemp plant (such as via CO2 or chemical solvents). It’s also necessary to avoid vaping products that include propylene glycol, which can turn into formaldehyde at high temperatures inside a vape pen. Formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and nose and increase the risk of cancer and other respiratory problems. Gill recommends using CBD vape pens that promote “solvent-free oils.”
The legal landscape of CBD
As mentioned previously, CBD exists in an odd legal space. The Agriculture Improvement Act, also known as the Farm Bill, legalized industrial hemp at the end of 2018, removing it from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s purview. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), still maintains that all CBD products are illegal to sell—even if they contain less than .3 percent THC—with the exception of Epidiolex. According to Nsikan Akpan and Jamie Leventhal from PBS, the FDA has the authority to go after any business marketing or selling products that make health claims regarding CBD, especially if interstate trade is involved. As of July 2019, the FDA has only sent warning letters to violators.
CBD’s status is a different story on state levels with abundant nuances. In Colorado, for instance, CBD is legal for both medical and recreational use for individuals over the age of 21 (which is consistent with the state’s views on marijuana). CBD is also fully legal in Oregon—but there are restrictions regarding how it can be advertised. Some states, like Louisiana, legalized CBD from hemp as recently as June 2019.
Others, however, are much harsher toward cannabidiol (especially those where marijuana is still entirely illegal), and many lie in-between. CBDCentral’s interactive map notes that a majority of states give CBD conditional legality, such as when it is exclusively for medical use (sometimes requiring patients to carry a card), for specific medical conditions (such as epilepsy), or even when CBD is sourced from marijuana instead of hemp.
How CBD is used in sports
One prime demographic for CBD is athletes. Athletes experience countless injuries and bodily stressors during their careers, and often turn to painkillers and opioids to cope with the results. Sports, professional or not, can take a serious toll on the body, and CBD’s array of health qualities can make life easier for players (including after retirement, because many athletes experience issues that are life-lasting).
However, CBD in the sports world is often controversial. The National Olympic Committee is more progressive and no longer bans CBD, allowing gold medalists like Ross Rebagliati to use the substance. On the other hand, the 2003 World Conference on Doping in Sport heavily discussed the use of cannabis and ended up banning it in almost every sport.
CBD Oil Review notes that the list of banned substances is based on three criteria, and must meet two to qualify for prohibition: 1) Potential to enhance performance, 2) Risk to athlete’s health, and 3) Violation of the spirit of sport.
Arguments are made for and against CBD: on one hand, it may improve athlete’s performances because they are able to tolerate discomfort better than opponents who are “playing through the pain.” It could also make them less stressed under pressure. On the other, cannabis—particularly THC—can distort perceptions of time and coordination.
It is possible that discussions revolved around THC more so than CBD, which had not experienced its market boom yet—it was simply wrapped up in the conversation about marijuana. Many professional players, though, such as those in the NFL and NBA, are contesting the proscription of CBD and medical marijuana so that they can better reap its health benefits and use it in their recovery regimens. The future is actually looking bright for CBD in sport: the World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances at the beginning of 2018, and consequently, the US Anti-Doping Agency will cease testing athletes for CBD.
The future of CBD
Cannabis’s legal status in many states often hinders research. The legalization of CBD in certain states, however, will help researchers collect further data on its applicability to humans. Brightfield Group also mentions that the FDA met on May 31, 2019, intending to help the agency collect further information on CBD from the public to guide its policymaking. The industry will continue to grow, but it will be interesting to see how the federal and state governments interact with the substance.
As CBD slowly becomes more accepted and legal (Guide to CBD even created a map detailing what the future of CBD looks like in each state), hopefully, consumers will learn to shop more wisely and hold business accountable, while companies establish and meet high standards for themselves. CBD is not going anywhere anytime soon, and it’s possible that as research continues, other cannabinoids will reveal themselves to provide other health benefits as well.
CBD is in a precarious legal position and not nearly enough about it is scientifically proven—not to mention the potentially dangerous business landscape it inhabits—but it generally appears to be safe and is capable of providing a significant number of health benefits. People who wish to try CBD for pain, inflammation, anxiety, PTSD, and other ailments should do so carefully and vigilantly, but CBD seems to be a viable alternative to pharmaceutical drugs and is advantageous for helping the body regulate homeostasis.