From cappuccinos and cocktails to lip balms and lotions, CBD has quickly become the hottest ingredient in just about, well, everything. And with headlines abuzz with its many health benefits, such as helping troubled sleepers, fighting wrinkles, and soothing sore muscles, it makes sense that CBD has taken over the wellness world. But it you’re still brimming with questions—Is it actually marijuana? Is it safe? How do you use it?—you’re not alone. We asked the experts for everything you want to know about CBD.
What exactly is CBD?
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a chemical compound found in cannabis plants. “The cannabis plant has about 100 different chemical compounds in it called cannabinoids,” says Peter Grinspoon, M.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School and Boston-based primary care physician. “The most well-known of these is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol—the one that gets you high. The second most well-known is CBD which, by itself, will not get you high.”
There are two main plant sources from which CBD can be extracted: marijuana and hemp. Both of these plants are part of the cannabis sativa family. However, there are far greater amounts of CBD found in hemp and negligible amounts of THC (less than 0.3 percent) versus as much as 30 percent THC in marijuana.
How does CBD work?
To understand how CBD works, you need a little background on the body's endocannabinoid system, or ECS. This system is essentially a network of receptors that helps power your immune system and regulate hormones along with a variety of brain functions, like recognizing and responding to pain.
When CBD cannabinoids enter the body, they can bind to various ECS receptors and activate them to produce therapeutic effects, like lower anxiety or decreased inflammation. CBD can also affect the release of certain chemcials in the body's ion channels, and enhance or block the binding of certain receptors to leave you feeling a certain way, like calmness, for longer. Dr. Grinspoon uses this analogy to sum it up: “It works sort of like a lock and key. When you put the key (CBD) in the lock (receptors in body), it can unlock various chemical effects.”
The benefits of using CBD products
For many, using CBD in various forms can help with a myriad of ailments including aches, pains, skin issues, and digestion. "In terms of its thereupeutic potential, CBD has not only been found to help with depression, anxiety, and epilepsy, but soon we could even be adding metabolic disorders, like diabetes to the list," Martin Lee, author of "Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, and Scientific", and co-founder and director of Project CBD tells us.
However, keep in mind that people's reactions to CBD will vary depending on the purpose for usage and the products used. Claudia Mata, co-founder of the CBD product care line Vertly tells us, “CBD is an adaptive molecule that will respond to everybody’s body differently."
As for whether you can get addicted to CBD, according to the World Health Organization’s report, “CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential.”
What about risks and side effects?
Some users may find they are simply more sensitive to CBD and experience minor side effects, like nausea or fatigue, as a result. But the biggest risk currently is that because CBD is being heavily marketed as a supplement (these are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration), it can be tricky to know what exactly is in every CBD product.
"Some studies have already shown that some CBD products say they have certain levels of CBD, but actually have more, less, or none at all," says Dr. Grinspoon. And while there's still much research to be done on the full effects and risks of CBD usage, Dr. Grinspoon notes a more likely scenario right now is that you simply don't feel any effects.
Who should or shouldn’t use CBD products?
Pregnant or breastfeeding women should steer clear of using CBD. In most states, you must also be over the age of 21 to purchase or use any kind of CBD product, though these exact laws currently vary nationwide. Rememer, if you’re on any medications—or are uncertain about specific CBD products—always consult your doctor first.
Is CBD actually legal everywhere?
It’s complicated. With the recent passing of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018—which removed “hemp” from the Controlled Substance Act’s definition of “marijuana”— all hemp-derived CBD products should be legal across all 50 states. On the other hand, CBD derived from marijuana is only legally available from a dispensary, at least in most states. Specific regulations of all CBD products still vary across the country; check out this map to see where your state stands.
Are CBD products safe for pets?
The research is still preliminary for CBD’s effects on our furry friends, but initial trials have seemed promising. In one small study on osteoarthritic dogs, owners reported that participants ingesting two milligrams of CBD oil twice a day for four weeks showed signs of increased comfort. Another study on dogs with epilepsy showed most participants experienced fewer seizures. Still, given the potential side effects, like decreased liver enzyme activity and small dips in blood pressure, you should consult a vet who is familiar with CBD usage in animals, says Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club.
What to know before buying CBD products
Like anything you’d put in or on your body, Lee says, "Be a conscious consumer the same way you would be when buying food. Read labels. If you see something you don't understand, research it before you buy it." Here are a few more tips:
- Buy Organic. With the current laws, any CBD product you consume will likely be hemp-derived. However, Mata warns, “The hemp plant, often used to clean soil, can draw out nutrients from the soil as well as toxins. Make sure your hemp-derived CBD comes from a place using organic practices.”
- Make Sure It's Actually CBD. To be positive you’re getting what you pay for, see if the company you're purchasing from has a Certificate of Analysis available. “These 3rd party lab results will state the composition and purity of a product,” Dr. Grinspoon tells us. “For CBD, this can reassure consumers and sellers that a bottle with 100 milligrams of CBD actually has 100 milligrams of CBD and doesn’t include anything else, like pesticides.”
- Know "Full" versus "Broad." Note that CBD products labeled “full spectrum” can include less than 0.3 percent levels of THC (not enough to get you high, but more likely to send you sailing) while products noted “broad-spectrum” do not contain any THC at all.
- Be Prepared to Experiment! Remember that a single balm or lotion may not make your chronic neck pain disappear in a week—or it very well could. Perhaps you're interested in experiencing a stronger CBD effect by skipping, or enhancing, topical usage with the ingestion of CBD. These methods include under-the-tongue drops, gummies and candies, or infused foods like honey and baked goods. Either way, our experts agree it may take a bit of trial and error before you find what works best for you. But when you do—the possibilities could be endless.