You’ve probably heard the term “CBD” before. From bud and vape oils to bath bombs and body lotions, everything is getting infused with the stuff. Cannabidiol—its real name—is said to relieve pain, anxiety, and a range of disorders. Just last month, the FDA approved Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug, to treat two major forms of epilepsy.
And while that’s great news for the future of CBD products, it’s also important to recognize what this means: There’s only one FDA-approved product on the market. Everything else out there isn’t held to any one standard, which makes choosing a CBD product a rather complex venture. Here’s what you should know before opting in.
What is CBD?
CBD is a cannabinoid, which is a compound found in cannabis plants. There are upwards of 100 cannabinoids within the plant, including CBD and THC (the one that gets you high). CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol; THC, the psychoactive compound, is shorthand for tetrahydrocannabinol. Most CBD products on the market right now come from hemp, which is a variety of the cannabis plant that has less than .3 percent THC. (The marijuana variety, on the other hand, has a higher THC count that varies depending on the strain.) You’ll often see it referred to as “industrial hemp” to distinguish that it’s legal in all states.
What’s the point of CBD?
We’re just beginning to understand the true science behind CBD. Anecdotally, however, people are touting its medicinal-like benefits: They’re using it in oral drops to relax, in lotions to calm muscles, and in concentrated pill form to quell out-of-balance nerves. The list of ailments it has helped is lengthy, and (of course) varies from person to person. Anxiety, pain, arthritis, drug cravings, convulsions, and inflammation are among the most notable things CBD is said to help relieve. It’s also being tested to treat chronic conditions, including epilepsy (the only ailment with the FDA stamp of approval), PTSD, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, Parkinson’s, and M.S.
Is CBD legal?
Probably. If it comes from a legal plant, it’s legal. If it comes from a plant illegal in your state, like the marijuana plant, then it’s questionable. The safest bet is to stick with a hemp-sourced CBD product, because industrial hemp is legal everywhere.
Why is it so popular right now?
The cannabis industry is in the midst of a much-needed makeover. States are rethinking the legality of marijuana, and an influx of research on the benefits of the plant is giving it a boost.
“That national conversation we’re starting to have is this revelation that what we’ve been taught is wrong,” says Andrew Aamot, president of Strava Craft Coffee, which brews CBD-rich coffee. “Cannabis is not this evil gateway drug. We’re all coming around to this realization that the cannabis plant is designed to work with the human body. We stress our bodies out constantly, and our bodies are trying to cope with it all. CBD can help put it back into balance. We start to feel better—calmer, a lessened inflammatory response, less neuropathic pain, a calmed nervous system.”
Areas with legal decisions already in place, like Strava’s base in Colorado, are helping guide the conversation about CBD.
“I came [to Colorado] with this assumption that all cannabis products were bad,” says Aamot. “But here, everyone you come across in your daily life might be a consumer of cannabis. They use it to relax or recuperate, rather than consuming pharmaceuticals or alcohol. Perfectly high-functioning individuals saw this as a way to live a better life. And CBD, which has all the benefits of marijuana without the high, has opened a lot of doors. It’s really softened the introduction of the plant.”
How does CBD work?
The human endocannabinoid system is to thank for CBD’s impact, and that system is largely misunderstood. It is part of your neurotransmitter system, which is what allows your nerves to communicate and work efficiently. That means the endocannabinoid system has a part in making sure your brain cells are working correctly, which CBD activates.
“CBD boosts your own natural cannabinoids, which improves your mood and overall wellbeing,” says Michele Ross, a neuroscientist and cannabis activist. “Because this system regulates everything—down to your dopamine levels—if it isn’t working, nothing is working. If you don’t know why you feel run-down all the time, despite feeling healthy and exercising, you might have an endocannabinoid deficiency.”
How do I take CBD?
Oil tinctures and capsules seem to be two of the more popular ways to consume CBD, but the list of products available is long. You can smoke it in bud form, or vape it in oil form. There are CBD-infused gummies, candies, and chocolates. Some companies like Strava are infusing their coffee beans with CBD, finding that adding it can minimize jitters associated with the caffeine, as well as increase focus. CBD topical treatments make up another huge part of the industry. Bath bombs, lotions, and balms are supposed to soothe muscles and promote an anti-inflammatory response. New companies are coming out with new products constantly, so you’ll have plenty of room to play.
What’s better: isolate or full spectrum?
CBD is not approved by the FDA, so knowing what your labels mean is especially important. One of the biggest differences you’ll see among CBD products is full-spectrum (also called whole flower) versus isolate. Isolate means just that—you’re taking just the CBD out of the plant. Full-spectrum means you’re extracting all of the compounds at once, including the CBD. It gets a lot of praise because it provides a reaction an isolate can’t: the “entourage effect.”
What’s the “entourage effect?”
The “entourage effect” is a big-picture, total-impact synergistic benefit from all elements of the plant working together, according to Gabrielle Francis, a naturopathic doctor, chiropractor, acupuncturist, and licensed massage therapist. (She’s better known as the Herban Alchemist.) It creates more of an overall, balanced effect on the body—contrasted with isolated elements, which are more targeted. Francis uses aspirin and willow bark as an example: Aspirin traditionally comes from compounds found in the bark. But instead of consuming the whole plant, you take just a single element. This creates an impactful—but static—medicinal-like effect. Using the whole bark might provide a less targeted, more balanced reaction.
Is there even a downside to CBD?
Without FDA approval for CBD products—save for Epidiolex—it can be difficult to know if what you’re getting is good. Understanding where it’s sourced from, how it’s manufactured, and how it’s meant to be consumed can help you navigate your search. In murky legal territory such as this, it’s easy for companies to promise more than the product can deliver on, so do your research.
And like anything, CBD is not meant for everyone. “CBD is not the cure-all for everything,” says Ross. “You’re not going to take a low dose of CBD and then throw all of your prescriptions in the garbage. It’s all about working with other parts of your life. People also think it’s the safest thing on earth, which isn’t true. There’s no substance on the planet that all people can take. For example, CBD might inhibit the breakdown of other medications, like ones that say ‘do not take with grapefruit.'”
Because research on CBD and its effects are so new, it cannot be said for certain what they might inhibit or prohibit.