To get the most out of CBD, all it takes is a little understanding.
Maybe you’ve seen CBD pop up on your local cafe’s menu or in a beauty product promising flawless, glowing skin. As the wellness fad of the moment, CBD has been credited as a cure-all, treating everything from anxiety to eczema without getting you classically high. But what’s legitimate and what’s just hype?
As the Director of Education for East Fork Cultivars, an organic, Oregon-based cannabis and hemp farm, I teach the science behind CBD to dispensary staff, consumers, and brands as well. And as a member of the Proper Cannabis Committee, I’ve tried my fair share of CBD-rich products. With all of this research and personal experience at my disposal, I’m happy to help demystify this seriously misunderstood cannabinoid.
Myth #1: There are multiple “CBDs.”
You might hear people refer to CBD in the plural as “CBDs.” That, however, is not a real thing. CBD is an abbreviation for cannabidiol and it's not ever supposed to be plural. Saying “CBDs” is even more inaccurate than saying things like “smoking the marijuanas” or “on the pot.” Luckily, keeping CBD singular is the easiest correction you can make.
“A better and more accurate term for CBD is 'non-intoxicating.'”
Myth #2: CBD is non-psychoactive.
The term “non-psychoactive” gets used often to describe CBD, but this is incorrect, and I'll tell you why. A psychoactive substance is something that interacts with our nervous systems to create a change in mood or behavior. And CBD does do this. It interacts with various neurotransmitters and their receptor systems to produce documented anti-anxiety and antipsychotic effects, to name just a couple examples. If you’ve ever felt a little calmer after consuming CBD, you’ve experienced some of its potential psychoactive effects.
Don’t be alarmed—this is a good thing! We get therapeutic benefits through these various pathways, we're just not getting the dramatic euphoric effects (the “high”) that are so often associated with psychoactive substances. A better and more accurate term for CBD is “non-intoxicating,” and we're finally starting to see scientists correct one another on this terminology accordingly.
Myth #3: All forms of CBD work basically the same.
This may come as a shock to some, but the formulation of your CBD product can really determine its potential effectiveness.
Specifically, there’s evidence that the body will use CBD much more effectively as part of a whole-plant or full-spectrum product than as an isolate. Full-spectrum means that the product preserves the maximal amounts of the source plant's hundreds of different compounds, and ideally in the same ratios naturally found in that plant. An isolate, on the other hand, has been processed to contain just the CBD molecule itself without any other components from the plant.
One study found that much higher amounts of CBD isolate were needed to get the same level of pain relief you could get from a whole-plant extract containing CBD. This is a prime illustration of the entourage effect (or ensemble effect), which is the observation that the many compounds in cannabis magnify each other and work together synergistically to create an overall effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. Point being, the therapeutic elements of cannabis work much better when consumed together versus separately.
“Currently, there's no testing legally required for CBD products sold outside of dispensary systems.”
Another interesting finding from that study: the effects you get from whole-plant extracts are dose-dependent, meaning the more you take, the greater the effects. Seems pretty intuitive, right? With isolates, however, there’s only a narrow dosage window that’s effective for each individual. That means taking more or less than your ideal dose could mean the difference between feeling great benefit or nothing at all, which is difficult since few really know what their ideal dose is. Because cannabinoid dosing is very specific to our individual bodies, this “bell-shaped dose-response curve” makes finding an effective dose of an isolate-based product way more complicated than with a full-spectrum product.
Because of the entourage effect, whole plant and full-spectrum cannabis-derived products offer consumers the greatest range of potential therapeutic benefits. Isolate still offers benefits but within a smaller range, making it trickier to use effectively.
Myth #4: All sources of CBD are equal.
Speaking of cannabis-derived products, the source of your CBD also matters. At this time, varieties of the cannabis plant (including hemp) are the only plants known to contain CBD naturally. There are some “non-cannabis plant-derived CBD” products on the market, but these products are actually made from a synthetic CBD that's created in a lab using certain other plants as part of the ingredients. With a chemical catalyst, the CBD is synthesized from those sources, not actually extracted whole from them. It's up to you whether you'd rather have CBD that comes from cannabis or if you're comfortable with CBD that was synthesized in a lab, but personally, I'm only interested in CBD that's been extracted from cannabis plants.
There’s also a difference in the quality of the cannabis source plant—I’m talking specifically between industrial hemp versus craft hemp or cannabis. These terms can be a little tricky because, botanically speaking, hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant. However, the plant varieties that we used to call “marijuana” we now simply call cannabis.
True industrial hemp is a very stalky type of cannabis that has historically been bred for its fiber, seeds, and oil. These are typically very low-resin male plants that don't have much in the way of flowers, and contain really low levels of CBD and other cannabinoids, terpenes, and other beneficial compounds. In contrast, craft hemp is essentially the same type of plant as the cannabis you'd buy in a dispensary. It’s just bred to have low enough levels of THC to legally qualify as hemp. These are very resinous, flower-forward female plants that have dramatically higher levels of cannabinoids and other helpful components.
“Lots of the CBD products you’ll find online are made from these kinds of inferior source materials.”
The distinction is important because all cannabis plants, including hemp, are bioaccumulators. This means they pull toxins like heavy metals and pesticides out of the soil they’re grown in and into the plant. When we extract CBD or other elements, those contaminants also pass into the product. Because industrial hemp is so much less potent, much more raw material is needed to get the same amount of CBD extract versus a smaller amount of more potent cannabis or craft hemp. So industrial hemp sourcing comes with an increased risk of contaminants passing through and into the product.
You can test for contaminants, but currently, there's no testing legally required for CBD products sold outside of dispensary systems. Much of the world’s industrial hemp is currently grown in places that don't have strong environmental or consumer protection laws (AKA China). Lots of the CBD products you’ll find online are made from these kinds of inferior source materials.
Myth #5: “CBD doesn’t work because I didn't feel anything.”
There are a lot of inferior “CBD” products out there—especially in the wilds of the internet. Outside of dispensaries, potency labels are often wrong, and there have been documented cases of people selling “CBD oil” with zero CBD in it!
So it's certainly possible that you could have used a product that didn't create any effects, especially if you didn't research the manufacturer and cultivation source. It's also possible that you didn't consume a large enough serving for your individual body and receptor system to “feel” anything, and these effective serving sizes can vary tremendously.
However, also keep in mind that not all beneficial substances will create an immediate effect that you can feel even while they are supporting your health and wellbeing. Do you “feel” Vitamin C or D right when you take it? Perhaps you might if you start with a severe deficiency and take a large dose. Likewise, people who are using CBD to manage more serious illnesses might feel more dramatic changes than someone in average good health who’s taking it to support their existing wellness.
But many therapeutic effects are slower and more behind-the-scenes. CBD has been shown to interact through numerous different pathways in the body and appears to support homeostasis, helping to regulate and balance activity among and inside our various bodily systems. So it can still be creating beneficial effects in your body whether you can “feel” them immediately or not.
Myth #6: CBD has no side effects.
CBD has been established to be a safe, low-risk substance by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other regulatory bodies. It is non-intoxicating, non-toxic, and non-addictive.
However, CBD does have some side effects that can be helpful to know. While it’s always good for people to get personal medical advice from a health professional, there are some general scientific facts and best practices that we can share here.
“The best practice is to avoid taking CBD at the same time as pharmaceuticals.”
Some of CBD’s effects in the body include reducing blood pressure and reducing the need for insulin in the body. These can be positive things, but people who are already on medication for either of these conditions should take note, as they may end up adjusting their dosage.
To prevent any potential interactions with medications in general, the best practice is to avoid taking CBD at the same time as pharmaceuticals. Because of the way CBD affects certain metabolic enzymes in the liver that deal with breaking down medications, it’s best to space out your consumption of CBD from any doses of pharmaceuticals.
If you’re interested in reading more about this in technical detail, Project CBD offers a free downloadable drug interaction guide. But again, for specific personal medical advice, your best resource will be a medical professional who is knowledgeable about cannabis therapeutics.
Illustrations by Andrew Janik.