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You’ve heard of THC, right? Most of us have, because [tooltip tip=”tetrahydrocannabinol”]THC[/tooltip] is the psychoactive element that makes you feel stoned when you smoke or eat marijuana, and it’s been highly talked about since its discovery in the 1960s. But, like me, you probably only started hearing about [tooltip tip=”cannabidiol”]CBD[/tooltip], when it flooded the market in 2017.

And flood the market it did!

I first noticed CBD oils and tinctures slowly making their way into my small, neighborhood health food store until, little by little, the number of CBD brands near the cash registers started to grow. Then, seemingly overnight, they were in every shop, restaurant, and gas station and in every type of product imaginable. Coffee and soft drinks are now infused with CBD, as are baked goods, gummies, lollipops, and skincare products. Even water. Yes, CBD-infused water!

I mean, baked goods make sense. I accidentally became familiar with pot brownies years ago in my freshman home-ec class (a head’s up would’ve been nice, Billy!!), so that doesn’t raise an eyebrow. And medical marijuana stores have been selling gummies and lollipops for a while, so infusing these same candies with CBD makes sense to me too.

But infusing water — and everything else under the sun — with CBD? Mmm, I don’t know. Is there really a benefit to all of it or is it mostly marketing hype?

In this article

Hemp leaf

Is CBD worth the hype?

With the little bit that I’d been reading on CBD product labels and the various handouts at my local health food market, I did believe that CBD was a health trend I would probably support… once I knew more about it. But I wasn’t sure that I trusted all these products. And I had so many questions about what to buy, why to buy it, who to buy it from, and how it would affect me.

For example:

  • What is CBD?
  • How is it different from THC? And will it make me feel high? Or sleepy?
  • How much should I take?
  • Is there enough CBD is in these trendy new products to offer any benefit? Or are they only adding a few drops, just so they can say “CBD” to the label?
  • With so many new brands jumping on the CBD wagon, surely there must be concerns around quality and safety. What do I need to know?

So, I finally took the time to dig in and find some answers. What I ultimately learned was that, yes, I definitely did want to jump on this healthy bandwagon and include CBD as part of my daily routine. But whether I buy CBD as a tincture, a tablet, or in food or drink, I now know how important it is for the CBD to meet certain criteria.

Related read: BRAND SPOTLIGHT: Charlotte’s Web Whole-Plant Hemp Extracts with CBD Oil

My criteria for buying CBD:

  • I will only buy CBD oil that’s been extracted from cannabis that has been grown and produced without harmful chemicals.
  • Ideally, I’d like the CBD to be part of a whole-plant extract — as either broad-spectrum or full-spectrum — and not a CBD isolate. (We’ll talk about what this means.)
  • I’ll only buy CBD that has been independently tested to be free from contaminants and additives.
  • And I’ll only buy CBD from brands who are not afraid to share their product test results.

3 ways to use this guide

  • Stop here if the above summary is all you need.
  • Skip down to the Buyer Beware section, if you’re curious to know why I’ll only buy CBD products that meet the above criteria.
  • Or read the article through to learn what CBD is, how it works within our bodies, how it differs from THC and hemp seed oil, and more.

A brief history of cannabis

Historians believe that cannabis has been used as herbal medicine by ancient cultures dating as far back as 500 BC. The higher THC strains were also used for ceremonial purposes, while the hemp fibers were used to make things like paper, rope, fabrics, and other textiles.

Driven by a growing fear over the psychotropic effects of marijuana, countries around the world began restricting cannabis use in the 1920s. Eventually, many nations made cannabis illegal altogether, even for medicinal use. And despite its low THC content, most laws did not distinguish hemp from marijuana, so all cannabis was banned — including industrial hemp.

Thankfully, the discovery of our body’s own endocannabinoid system in the early 1990s paved the way for today’s cannabis comeback.

Hemp seed oil and hemp fabrics were the first to make their way onto store shelves, once Canada legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in 1998. By that time, scientific research on THC and CBD were already in high gear, attempting to catch up after decades of restrictions limited their ability to test and formally prove what ancient cultures already (instinctively) knew… that our body benefits from cannabinoids.

THC and CBD are both cannabinoids

THC and CBD are the two most well-known (and well-studied) of more than 80 naturally occurring chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, that are produced by the cannabis plant.

I used to think these cannabinoids came from two different plants. (You did too, right?) But it turns out that marijuana and hemp are both cannabis, and you’ll find both THC and CBD in most cannabis plants.

So if that’s the case, then what exactly is the difference between hemp and marijuana? And why is hemp most often associated with CBD, while marijuana is most often associated with THC?

Marijuana vs. hemp

By and large, nearly all cannabis plants have both THC and CBD. But while CBD is known to have a calming effect on the mind, it is not psychotropic (it won’t get you high). THC, as you probably know, is psychotropic — it will get you high.

So, what ultimately distinguishes a cannabis plant from being classified (legally) as marijuana or hemp is simply how much THC the plant contains. The magic number is 0.3%, which is the concentration of THC (by dry weight) in the plant.

Charlotte Web's Hemp Farm
Charlotte Web’s Colorado Hemp Farm (posted with permission)

In other words:

  • If a cannabis plant contains more than 0.3% THC, then it is legally classified as marijuana.
  • If the plant has a concentration of less than 0.3% THC, then it is legally classified as hemp.

That’s it.

It’s worth clarifying that the two main strains of cannabis (Sativa and Indica) can both have more (or less) than 0.3% THC. And both can simultaneously have a high (or low) concentration of CBD. These strains have been cross-bred for ages to create countless hybrid varieties with different cannabinoid ratios, so it often depends on the grower’s intention.

Ok great. But, if CBD can also be found in high concentration in plants that are classified as marijuana, why do commercial CBD products all say “hemp-derived CBD”?

Why is most commercial CBD derived from hemp?

While marijuana is quickly becoming legal for both medical and recreational use across the US and other countries, pot is still considered a controlled substance.

The thing is, CBD is CBD, no matter how much THC the plant also contains. But when CBD is derived from marijuana (a cannabis plant that has greater than 0.3% THC), then its CBD considered a legally controlled substance. If that same CBD is derived from hemp (a cannabis plant with less than 0.3% THC), it is not a legally controlled substance.

As you might imagine, it’s far more difficult (and costly) to sell a controlled substance. So, as of this writing, you’ll find that most commercially available CBD is derived from hemp. And (also as of this writing) CBD products derived from marijuana can only be sold by licensed marijuana dispensaries.

Do we really need CBD?

Regardless of whether the CBD comes from a hemp or marijuana plant, does our body actually need it? The short answer is: kinda. We definitely need cannabinoids, but… it turns out that our bodies make their own!

That said, our body also manufactures its own vitamins and other nutrients. And yet, we also consume those nutrients from supplements to help our body out, right? Same concept — CBD can be used to supplement our body’s own cannabinoids.

Wait, our bodies also produce cannabinoids?

Yep! Our bodies also produce cannabinoids… which are named after the cannabis plant, since that’s how we discovered them!

CBD was discovered on the heels of TCH in 1964 when scientists were studying how and why marijuana makes us high. Or in more scientific terms, they were trying to understand how and why cannabinoids affect our mind and body.

CBD relieves inflammation

Interestingly, it took another 30 years for scientists to discover that our bodies also manufacture their very own endocannabinoids– “endo” means inside our bodies. The two main endocannabinoids that scientists study are called anandamide and arachidonoylglycerol.

Of course, you won’t see those names on any tincture, edible, or skincare product, since they’re made by our body and not by plants. But I wanted to call them out simply to distinguish between endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids (“phyto” means “from plants”). Phytocannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, are chemically similar to our endocannabinoids and studies show that they have similar effects.

How do cannabinoids work?

In essence, cannabinoids can function like neurotransmitters, which means they communicate (transmit) different chemical messages to the cells within our nervous system. Our body receives those messages in what are aptly called ‘cannabinoid receptors’, regardless of whether those messages are delivered by phytocannabinoids or endocannabinoids.

Our cannabinoid receptors

The discovery of our body’s cannabinoid receptors is where things start to get really interesting. Researchers have so far isolated two types: CB1 and CB2.

THC is mainly attracted to our CB1 receptors, which are located in our brain and throughout our nervous system. This might make you might think that CBD is attracted to CB2 receptors, which are mostly located in the immune cells throughout our body. But in fact, CBD doesn’t seem to be attracted to either CB1 or CB2 receptors.

For that reason, scientists believe there exists a third receptor (to be named CB3) that we haven’t discovered yet. In the meantime, researchers believe that CBD works by stimulating the production of our own endocannabinoids, which interact with both our CB1 and CB2 receptors.

The Human Endocannabinoid System

Also, this network of endocannabinoids and receptors is an entire system, called our endocannabinoid system or ECS. Like our immune, digestive, and circulatory systems, our endocannabinoid system plays a critical role in our keeping us healthy… and alive. In fact, the EC system is key to our survival, yet we didn’t even know existed until the 1990s — all thanks to studying how pot gets us high. Crazy, right?

So what exactly does the EC system do for us and why is it so important?

What does our endocannabinoid system do?

Researchers learned that the endocannabinoid system carries out a number of key tasks to maintain what’s called “homeostasis”. That means when our body reacts to some change in our environment, our ECS starts or stops certain functions to bring things back into balance.

For example, let’s say we break a bone. Our body will increase blood flow to the area to begin the healing process. It’s our ECS that determines when enough white blood cells have reached the affected area. And once it does, the CB1 receptors in the tissue near the break, as well as the CB2 receptors in our immune cells, will bind with cannabinoids in order to slowly turn off the inflammatory response.

Similarly, our ECS can also help us to regulate the secretion of hormones related to stress. Specifically, it helps to bring our body’s functions (as well as our mood) back to equilibrium, after a stress reaction. But as you may know, there’s stress… and then there’s chronic stress. When we overburden our ECS, we can weaken its response.

CBD supplementation can help our ECS to regulate certain functions within our body.

CBD for dogs

It turns out that humans aren’t the only beings with an endocannabinoid system (ECS). Researchers say that all [tooltip tip=”animals with a spine”]vertebrates[/tooltip] — mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, and reptiles — have an ECS.

That means, CBD can be safely given to mature dogs* and can help to:

  • Keep your dog calm and relaxed
  • Promote healthy hips and joints
  • Support brain health, skin health, and the health of their immune system

* CBD may not be appropriate for puppies or other animals besides mature dogs. Please consult with your veterinarian.

The benefits of CBD

Our body’s endocannabinoid system helps to regulate pain, inflammation, appetite, immune function, reproductive function, stress, sleep, and more. On the plant side, we know that phytocannabinoids (such as CBD and THC) are chemically similar to our body’s endocannabinoids and encourage similar stabilizing effects.

Relaxed woman

Scientists are actively studying CBD (and THC) across a wide range of conditions to see whether (and how) phytocannabinoids interact with our ECS and help to regulate various functions. CBD is being touted as a miracle cure by bloggers and product websites around the web — and that’s causing a lot of confusion for folks who want to use CBD, but aren’t sure what it can or cannot actually do.

Some of the claims may turn out to be true and some not. It’s too soon to tell, but there are copious ongoing studies that are looking at whether or not CBD can relieve chronic pain*, fight depression and anxiety*, lower blood pressure*, reduce the frequency and duration of some causes of seizures**, and reduce nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy treatments.***

* I’ve linked to a few of these studies in the “Research” section at the bottom of this article.

** There is one drug made from purified CBD, Epidiolex, that is FDA-approved to treat seizures, but only for seizures that are specifically associated with Lennox-Gastaut or Dravet syndrome.

*** THC has been used for this purpose for a while, but patients don’t always want the intoxicating effects that accompany the relief offered by THC.

Are the claims true?

While early results seem promising (mostly in rats), more rigorous scientific testing and clinical evidence (in people) is needed before CBD brands can claim any specific medical benefits — and before the FDA will approve CBD as a natural alternative to the pharmaceuticals that are currently used to treat these conditions.

Full-spectrum hemp extracts multiply the effects of pure CBD oil

Often times when we buy CBD tinctures and edibles, they are CBD isolates. In other words, only the CBD has been extracted (isolated) from the hemp plant, leaving all sorts of other goodies behind. The thing is, there is another family of natural compounds called terpenes that also have beneficial effects on our body.

Terpenes are responsible for the distinct aroma and flavor of the different strains of both marijuana and hemp. They are also believed to influence how each strain may affect us (calming vs. mood-elevating, for instance).

While CBD and terpenes are each beneficial on their own, evidence suggests these compounds work even better together. Their synergies are referred to as “the entourage effect” and you’ll benefit from this boost by looking for full-spectrum (or broad-spectrum) hemp extracts.

Here’s how Charlotte’s Web describes it:
Quick side note: You may see that some full-spectrum hemp extracts still say CBD oil on the label. That’s because CBD is the big buzzword right now and most consumers aren’t hip to the full extract just yet.

Also, you may also find broad-spectrum hemp extracts. These start off as full-spectrum hemp extracts, but then the THC is removed.

To summarize:

  • Full-spectrum hemp extracts include the full range of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other beneficial constituents of the hemp plant. It may contain trace amounts of THC (less than 0.03%), so it won’t get you high. Even this small amount of THC is believed to be beneficial for the mind and body. Just know that do you run a small risk of failing a drug test for work (or whatever purpose) if that’s a concern.
  • Broad-spectrum hemp extracts include everything in the full-spectrum… except the THC. (Those who want to benefit from the THC (without feeling high) prefer full-spectrum to broad-spectrum for this reason.)
  • Pure CBD oil includes only the CBD cannabinoid and nothing else.

(A very related read… Mother Nature Still Knows Best: The Benefits of Whole Food Supplements)

Did you know?

Phytocannabinoids are unique to cannabis. But terpenes are found in fruits, herbs, and flowers throughout the plant world, and are credited for the beautiful and therapeutic aromas in most essential oils. For example, limonene is a terpene that is found in high concentrations in cannabis… as well as the rind of citrus fruits. And myrcene, the most abundant terpene in cannabis, is also found in mangoes, thyme, lemongrass, and basil.

How much CBD should I take?

The first thing you should know is that some sellers list milligrams (mg) of CBD in their product by individual serving (Charlotte’s Web, for example), while others list it by the total amount of CBD in the bottle (Plant Therapy, for example). For the latter, be sure to flip over the bottle to see the serving size.

I say “serving size”, because dosing standards haven’t yet been established for either oral supplementation or topicals. Here are the recommendations I’ve seen from a few CBD sellers.

Serving size for CBD oils/tinctures

  • Too low a dose won’t offer a ton of relief. But if you’re not yet comfortable with the idea of CBD and just want to give it a try, start off with 5 to 10mg per day.
  • If you need just a little bit of help to manage stressful days, you might try 10 to 20mg and see how it goes.
  • Once you know how your body feels with CBD (or you’re comfortable diving right in), you might try 20mg to 40mg.
  • You might find 40mg+ to be helpful when you need even stronger support.

Dosage for CBD topicals

I haven’t seen any recommended ‘dosage’ for skin cream and other topicals. However, I’ve noticed that brands who specify the CBD content on their topicals tend to offer at least 250mg per ounce.

Notice that this is per ounce and not per application. In this example, if the container is 2oz then it would hold a total of 500mg. How much CBD you end up with each time you put it on depends on you.

Maybe you apply a little, maybe a lot. Like the oils and tinctures, it’s a bit of an experiment at first to see how you feel. If you feel a benefit from a small amount, great. If not, you may need to apply a little more and/or apply it more often.

Oil-based vs. alcohol-based CBD tinctures

You’ll find that some hemp extracts and CBD tinctures are diluted in another oil — usually hemp seed oil or coconut oil. Others come in a base of alcohol. Both methods ultimately deliver results — it’s just a matter of time.

Oil-based CBD tinctures can take a bit longer to kick in, but tend to taste better and are easier to hold under your tongue. (Hold it for 60-seconds before swallowing to absorb more of the CBD and nutrients).

Alcohol-based CBD tinctures are more readily absorbed in the mouth and faster to kick in. You’ll want to drop these on your tongue, not under it since the alcohol can sting a little. Still, even on the tongue is a bit much for some folks. (And by “some folks”, I mean me!)

Smoking marijuana vs. consuming edibles

The focus of this article is primarily CBD, but I thought this tidbit is good to know, in case you’re considering medicinal (or recreational) marijuana…

When we inhale the smoke from marijuana, its THC can reach the cannabinoid receptors in our brain within minutes. As a result, you can tell pretty quickly whether you’ve had enough or need a bit more.

By contrast, it can take a couple of hours to feel the effects of edible marijuana, because it has to pass through our digestive system first. Because of the delay, it’s not uncommon for folks to think the edible isn’t affecting them. So they eat a bit more… only to regret it a few hours later, once it all kicks in.

It can be uncomfortable, but at that point, there is little you can do but wait it out. Do keep this in mind, especially if you’re indulging in the tasty sweet treats!

Are Hemp oil (with CBD) and Hemp Seed Oil the same thing?

While both CBD oil and hemp seed oil can come from the same hemp plant, they are not the same. Their main difference lies in the part of the plant where they’re extracted from — and their price. Because these oils are so easily mistaken for each other, it’s important to pay attention to the label to make sure you get what you pay for.

Hemp seed oil is often touted as a superfood, because of its high concentration of healthy dietary fats (omega-3s and 6s), alongside a host of other nutrients. It’s also a popular skincare ingredient, in part for this fatty acid profile, but also because it’s known to be moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, and [tooltip tip=”Non-comedogenic means it won’t clog your pores.”]non-comedogenic[/tooltip].

In addition to oral tinctures and edibles, CBD oil — whether an isolate or as part of a whole-plant hemp extract — is also popping up in skincare products everywhere. Bloggers and sellers claim it helps with everything from acne to allergic contact dermatitis. Like CBD tinctures, scientific studies are still ongoing.

Here’s where it gets confusing. Full- and broad-spectrum hemp extracts are sometimes referred to as just hemp oil (with CBD). And some folks also refer to hemp seed oil as just hemp oil for short. (Good lawd!!)

In summary

  • CBD oil is usually extracted from the flower and leaves. These so-called “aerial parts” of the hemp plant have the highest concentration of cannabinoids. (The stem and stalk also have cannabinoids, just not as much.)
  • Full-spectrum hemp oil is extracted from the whole plant. This can include the leaves, stems, stalks, and flowers… but usually not the seeds.
  • Meanwhile, hemp seed oil is extracted from the seeds… and only the seeds. Hemp seeds (and the oil that is extracted from them) may contain only trace amounts of CBD or other phytocannabinoids, though they usually don’t have any at all.

Price… make sure you know what you’re getting

Another significant point of comparison is the price. CBD oil and full-spectrum hemp extracts can be pricey, while hemp seed oil is not.

If you are buying products that contain CBD oil or hemp extracts, be prepared to pay a higher price. And if the price seems too good to be true, question it…

  • Is there enough CBD/hemp extract to make a difference? If a product touts CBD on the label but doesn’t specify how much… be wary.
  • Does it really contain CBD oil? Or it is hemp oil? If a skincare label hints that the product contains CBD oil, but the price seems a bit low, you should double-check the ingredients.
    • For example, some hemp seed oil will be listed as cannabis Sativa seed oil. With a quick glance, it’s easy to be tricked into thinking that’s CBD oil. But notice the word ‘seed’? That’s the key.
    • True CBD oil might be listed as CBD oil, cannabidiol (which is what CBD is short for), hemp oil, full-spectrum hemp oil, or even just hemp extract.

Buyer beware… please

As I was doing my research for this article, I kept thinking about how the considerations for buying cannabis are so similar to buying essential oils. For starters, the distinct aromas of different cannabis strains and essential oils are largely due to the same aromatic compounds — terpenes.

But what I thought about even more is that both essential oils and CBD became incredibly trendy, incredibly fast which, in turn, enticed entrepreneurs to create new brands incredibly fast. So for both products, a big concern is that too many of these brands are diving in headfirst without taking the time to do their homework.

As a result, cannabis and essential oil buyers alike often end up with low-quality products that don’t live up to their claims (at best) and can actually end up being dangerous (at worst).

Here’s what you need to know so that you don’t fall into that category.

A very related read: The Essential Guide To Buying High-Quality Essential Oils… and Using Them Safely

What to consider when buying CBD products

Several studies found cause for alarm. The main issues were around:

  • Mislabeling: Many products did not contain the promised levels of CBD touted on the label. Some contained more CBD than expected, which is not a bad thing. But a significant number of products contained far less CBD than promised.
  • Contamination: Many CBD products were tainted with pesticides and heavy metals. Hemp is known for its ability to remove chemicals and heavy metals from soil. This is a beneficial characteristic when we need to remediate contaminated soil. But it also means that it’s healthier to buy cannabis products that have been grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemical inputs, as these toxins can (and do) end up in the final product.
  • Significant THC levels: Hemp-derived CBD products should have less than 0.3% THC, by legal standards. Yet CBD products were found to have enough THC to potentially cause intoxication. This may be entirely unintentional. Still, if you don’t want to get stoned or fail a drug test at work — or you don’t want to get your kids or dog stoned if they’re taking the supplements — then you want to make sure that every batch of CBD or full-spectrum hemp extract is tested for appropriate levels of THC.
  • Counterfeit CBD: Some unscrupulous brands have been manufacturing cheap synthetic versions of CBD and marketing them as the real thing. These dangerous compounds have sent several folks to the emergency room. Again, testing each batch is key.

Stick with brands you can trust

Until oversight becomes more stringent, it’s up to us consumers to make sure we’re getting the highest-quality and safest products possible. This means buying from companies who do rigorous 3rd-party testing to ensure the purity of their products and the relative accuracy of their CBD content. And you want transparency, which means the brand should readily share their results online.

Trying out CBD products shouldn’t be this complicated. After all, these products are supposed to help us feel less stressed, right? But while we wait for stronger standards, let’s empower ourselves to make informed choices and support CBD companies that are doing things the right way. Your endocannabinoid system will thank you.

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