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Dripping over Instagram models and lining drugstore shelves, the “cure-all” CBD oil has recently surged in popularity. Oil isn’t the only form it takes, either: gummies, beers, lotions, and even mascara have all made an appearance. But what is CBD, and how does it affect the human brain and body?
Cannabis contains CBD
Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, is a molecule extracted from the cannabis plant. Yes, sometimes that cannabis plant (marijuana), but more often another member of the same species (hemp). There is one major difference between these two varieties of cannabis plant. Marijuana was bred for its psychoactive effects whereas hemp was generally bred for its fibers and seeds. While experts hypothesize that the CBD levels in cannabis were much higher historically, extracting CBD from cannabis (either hemp or marijuana) is a more recent phenomenon.
CBD oils vary in many characteristics, including strength
While CBD itself is always the same compound, CBD products can vary a whole lot. The general process required to make CBD-containing products is similar, though.
Manufacturers can extract CBD from the leaves or the flowers of the plant (usually hemp) using a solvent. After extraction, the CBD-containing liquid is usually added to an edible oil such as sunflower, hemp, or olive oil. The taste, smell, color, and viscosity of the final CBD product will differ depending on the chosen extraction method and carrier oil. The actual CBD content can also intensely vary, from ~0.1 mg/mL to ~655 mg/mL.
The THC content will also differ depending on the extraction and purification processes the manufacturers use. In ~25% of the 84 CBD products tested in one study, researchers found THC in measurable quantities. At a maximum of ~6.5 milligrams THC per milliliter, the undisclosed levels of THC in some products could result in intoxication or impairment, especially in children.
How does CBD compare to THC?
CBD and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are two of the 100+ compounds found in cannabis. They share the same exact molecular formula. CBD and THC both contain twenty-one atoms of carbon, thirty of hydrogen, and two of oxygen (C21H30O2).
In spite of its chemical similarities to THC, CBD does not get users high and is not hallucinogenic/psychoactive/addictive. Researchers think this is because THC causes its hallucinogenic effects by fitting into and activating cannabinoid receptors (CB1 & CB2 receptors). These receptors exist primarily in brain cells. Any neurotransmitters that can fit into these receptors are called endocannabinoids. Unlike THC, CBD does not fit into those receptors.
Think of THC molecules as keys that can fit into lock-like receptors in the brain. In contrast, CBD does not activate these same receptors. However, CBD may still affect these receptors by changing the shape of the keyhole. This shape change makes it harder for the THC key to unlock it and cause hallucinations and a high. While they likely do so in opposing ways, both CBD and THC can affect CB1 receptors in the nervous system.
Unlike THC though, CBD’s effects go far beyond these specific receptors.
CBD’s effects go beyond the nervous system
CBD can fit into receptors on 65 different cell types, affecting multiple body systems. CBD can also stimulate serotonin, “feel good” receptors located in the brain and gut. Given its demonstrated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory characteristics, it may help manage pain and inflammation, too. The fact that CBD affects multiple bodily systems is part of the reason researchers are excited about its therapeutic potential. Unfortunately, its widespread effects are also one of the challenges that come with studying it.
Studying CBD is tricky, tricky business
Messing with the system that has CB receptors, known as the endocannabinoid system, can have scary consequences. One study that aimed to investigate new pain-killers (by boosting natural endocannabinoid levels) lead to seven hospitalizations and one death. Another product (Rimonabant) was designed to block CB1 receptors in the body in order to suppress appetite. It was not allowed in the U.S. after side effects of depression and suicidal behavior surfaced.
In short: researchers aren’t exactly sure about how the endocannabinoid system and CBD work.
CBD has been especially difficult to study in the U.S., as its cannabis source is classified as a Schedule 1 drug. This means the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) places it in the same class as heroin, peyote, ecstasy and LSD. However, the DEA has rescheduled the first CBD drug to Schedule 5, meaning it has low potential for abuse. This means more research is on its way!
While humans have been using cannabis medicinally for thousands of years, researchers have not. Hopefully, with impending cannabis legalization and increasing CBD consumption, we’ll gain more insight into this potentially powerful compound.