What is CBD? – Cannabidiol Effects, Uses, Benefits & More

Cannabidiol – better known by the abbreviation CBD is everywhere these days. With a wide range of health benefits and numerous methods of consumption, this compound is creating plenty of buzz. But what exactly is it? Read this article to find out.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Since the effects of cannabis started to be researched, THC has long-been the molecule people associate with cannabis. What you might not know is that THC isn't the only chemical compound found within the plant that can produce effects.

In fact, there is a molecule similar to THC found in the cannabis plant known as CBD which produces effects that can be beneficial in treating conditions such as pain, anxiety, insomnia and epilepsy. But what exactly is CBD and is it actually that useful? Keep on reading if you're interested in learning about the molecule that's got everyone talking.

What is CBD?

CBD stands for cannabidiol, which is a molecule known as a cannabinoid. These cannabinoids can be split into two categories: phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids. CBD is a phytocannabinoid, meaning that it is derived from a plant (i.e. cannabis) as opposed to an endocannabinoid, which is produced within the body.

CBD can come from both cannabis and hemp plants, with the major difference between the two being the presence of other cannabinoids and chemical compounds. Extracts from cannabis plants contain CBD in conjunction with other compounds such as THC, while hemp-derived extracts only contain CBD with trace levels of THC. This can be helpful for anyone who wants to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of CBD while avoiding THC.

THC is the phytocannabinoid responsible for the 'high' that is synonymous with cannabis use. We typically associate feeling stoned with using cannabis but not all cannabinoids produce a high. CBD is non-intoxicating, which means that products containing this molecule can be utilised for medicinal purposes without stimulating intense psychoactive effects.

Currently, CBD is all the rage. The hype stems from its wide range of health benefits and the ease of which it can be extracted from plants, turned into a product and subsequently consumed. But what exactly does it do once inside of your body and how can it help?

How does it work?

Cannabinoids such as CBD bind to cannabinoid receptors that are located throughout the body, with higher concentrations found within the brain and spinal cord. This network of cannabinoid receptors is known as the endocannabinoid system or ECS. The ECS is a complex signalling system that's main function is to maintain homeostasis within the body. Simply put, homeostasis refers to maintaining the balance of internal, physical and chemical conditions within the body. 

Appetite, sleep, emotion, memory, temperature control, nociception (pain processing) and even our immune and nervous systems are all things that the ECS can influence when activated. When any of these things are out of whack, the ECS will release endocannabinoids with a wide range of functions to help restore balance. While CBD doesn't bind to these receptors directly, it can still influence the ECS by stimulating the production of these endocannabinoids. 

CBD has also been found to exert effects outside the ECS and interact with opioid, dopamine and serotonin receptors. These receptors can be located in certain areas of the CNS (brain and spinal cord), which is why CBD being often labelled as non-psychoactive is misleading – it is actually non-intoxicating. But why is it non-intoxicating when THC, another cannabinoid, is?

Well, THC directly stimulates the ECS by binding to cannabinoid receptors called CB1 receptors. Activation of these CB1 receptors not only has implications on homeostasis, it can also evoke feelings of euphoria, which can manifest as feelings of panic or anxiety for some consumers. As CBD exerts its effects indirectly and does not stimulate CB1 receptors, using this compound won't make you feel high, euphoric or anxious.

What are some uses & benefits?

Although we've discussed what CBD can do once inside the body, you may still be confused as to what it can actually do for you. Let's explore how these effects translate into the wide range of therapeutic uses and benefits that CBD is associated with.

Pain

One of the major conditions that CBD has proven effective in managing is pain. Chronic pain is made up of neuropathic and inflammatory pain, which are the two pain conditions that CBD can treat the most effectively. Neuropathic pain is produced by damage to the neurons in our nervous system, while inflammatory pain (which is present in arthritis and joint pain) is associated with tissue damage and the resulting inflammation.

The way CBD provides pain relief is by inhibiting the release of inflammatory proteins. As such, CBD is great for anti-inflammation and protects the neurons against the tingling and burning sensations that neuropathic pain is characterised by. In fact, CBD is so effective at managing pain that many athletes are now utilising the cannabinoid for pain relief and recovery.

Another benefit of CBD's analgesic effects is a potential decrease in opioid abuse. Pain is currently the leading reported health issue worldwide, with opioids such as codeine and oxycodone commonly prescribed as a treatment. In America alone, over 100 people die a day due to the misuse of opioids and a similar trend is emerging in Australia, with deaths from opioids almost doubling in the last decade.

As CBD has emerged as a viable alternative to pain relief, it can help to supplement and replace opioid prescriptions. Due to CBD indirectly stimulating the ECS, the chances of habit formation and addiction are also less likely.

Anxiety

Similar to chronic pain, anxiety is another major health issue that is continually on the rise.  Estimates from the World Health Organisation indicate that close to 264 million people worldwide suffer from an anxiety disorder, with 2 million of that population being Australians.

Currently, the front-line treatment for anxiety disorders involves psychotherapy in conjunction with antidepressant and anxiolytic medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and diazepam (Valium) amongst others. Studies show that adherence rates for anxiety sufferers to therapy is quite low, leaving prescription medications as their only option. 50% of anxiety sufferers taking these medications report no improvements in their anxiety symptoms and the medication itself can lead to addiction in some cases (especially with benzodiazepines). 

As an alternative, there is research to suggest that CBD has significant anxiolytic effects and may be beneficial in treating anxiety symptoms. These effects could possibly stem from CBD's interaction with serotonin receptors.

Insomnia

Insomnia can often be a comorbid condition for those who already suffer from anxiety. Well, it turns out that this could be another condition which CBD can treat, as a recent study found that chronic insomnia sufferers experienced a 66% improvement in their sleep after just one month of CBD use.

CBD's effects on sleep are still not fully understood and there is lots of conflicting evidence, with some studies showing CBD to have no effect on insomnia symptoms. It seems that dosage could play the biggest role as higher doses appear to be more effective than lower doses. Another consideration is that CBD is effective at combatting sleeplessness due to its ability to manage other conditions that are comorbid with insomnia, such as pain and anxiety.

Epilepsy

There is a lot of interest surrounding CBD's ability to alleviate the symptoms of epilepsy, especially amongst young children, and for good reason. Close to 3% of Australians suffer from epilepsy, with the large majority of this population being comprised of children. Current medications for epilepsy only have a 70% success rate and can have a host of side-effects that can severely impact the sufferer's quality of life.

While the mechanism is still being researched, CBD has shown great potential in the treatment of epilepsy via its ability to reduce the frequency and duration of seizures. In 2018, the FDA approved a CBD-based medicine from GW Pharma called Epidiolex for treating Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, which are two different types of epilepsy. MGC Pharmaceuticals (ASX: MXC), an Australian cannabis company, also recently had their product CannEpil enter the UK market for the treatment of epilepsy.

Acne & Hair Care

Some recent studies on CBD as a viable treatment for acne found that CBD can significantly decrease an individual's sebum levels. Sebum is the oily and waxy secretion that is responsible for developing pimples and cysts. Due to these reasons, many skincare companies are looking at ways to incorporate CBD into their newer or existing products.

CBD may also improve the condition of your hair and scalp in the same way it can reduce acne. For your scalp to remain healthy it needs to maintain a good balance of sebum, as too much can cause issues such as psoriasis, dermatitis, dandruff and baldness. As CBD can regulate these levels by reducing the presence of sebum, it could play a role in promoting healthy hair and preventing baldness.

Animals

If you're wondering how CBD can provide such a wide range of benefits for humans, then you may be even more surprised to find out that these benefits can extend to your pets too. That's right, you didn't misread – CBD could actually be just as effective in treating your furry friend's ailments.

The main reason behind this is that cats and dogs have their own endocannabinoid systems. Dogs that suffer from the issues listed above such as anxiety, arthritis and seizures can be given a treat (ment?) containing CBD to relieve their symptoms in much the same way as with humans. In fact, some companies, such as Charlotte's Web, are now releasing canine-specific CBD products.

While this all sounds great, we are still researching the full potential of CBD in this area. More research is needed to fully ascertain the safety, efficacy, optimal dose and route of administration for these practices. Do not administer CBD to your pets without consulting the research for yourself first.

How do I use it?

As CBD has such a wide range of uses and benefits, there are numerous different ways in which it can be consumed. How you utilise this substance will be based on personal preference as well as how effective that particular product is in managing your condition. 

They don't all work in the same way and with so many different CBD products on the market, inconsistencies in quality and strength can be common, so make sure to do some research prior to purchasing.

CBD oil is the most common CBD product and the market and is seen as the most versatile. CBD oil is typically a liquid extract contained in small bottles with a dropper built in the lid. These are also known as tinctures. CBD oil can be applied sublingually (i.e. under the tongue) for fast absorption or alternatively, can be ingested either directly or via food and beverages. 

This oil can also come in capsule form (enclosed in a gelcap) where the onset of its effects will take longer but will also last for longer. Similar to this method of ingestion is CBD edibles. This refers to food and beverages infused with CBD and can take the form of gummies, chocolates and soft drinks amongst other things. CBD oils and edibles are typically used to treat pain, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia.

CBD can also be applied to the skin in the form of topicals such as lotions, balms, gels, sprays and creams. Water-based topicals are absorbed quickly while oil-based topicals are absorbed more deeply. Topicals are mainly utilised to treat localised pain, inflammation and soreness.

Vaporising CBD is another method that delivers fast-acting effects, which is handy for those consuming CBD for anxiety or stress relief. CBD vapes refer to pre-filled CBD oil cartridges which can be attached to e-cigarettes or vapes. There is even a growing range of cannabis strains on the market that specifically contain high levels of CBD and low levels of THC for consumers wanting all the benefits of cannabis without the high. ACDC and Sour Tsunami are just two examples of CBD-dominant strains with minimal concentrations of THC.

CBD Advocates

Scientists and medical cannabis consumers aren't the only ones who are excited about cannabidiol and its potential. As CBD becomes legal in more parts of the world and the research behind the claims becomes more concrete, we're witnessing increasing numbers of people advocating for its use medicinally.

Amongst these advocates are numerous high-profile individuals who have used their platform to promote the benefits of CBD and how it has impacted their life. Actors such as Jennifer Anniston, Gywneth Paltrow and Seth Rogen have all endorsed the use of CBD for conditions such as pain and anxiety, while Michael J. Fox's use of CBD for symptoms related to Parkinson's disease is well-documented.

Other heavyweights who have entered the CBD market are Mike Tyson and Dan Bilzerian. Mike Tyson recently created his own 40-acre 'cannabis resort' in California, while Dan Bilzerian has started up his own CBD company called Ignite. Closer to home is Pete Evans, who has been a vocal supporter of CBD use, especially when prepared with food. No surprises there as cannabidiol is explicitly paleo.

This strong public support for CBD will only boost its reputation, facilitating research incentives and the creation of new products. Currently in Australia, CBD can only be purchased with a prescription and isn't available over-the-counter. Access to CBD in the future will hopefully improve as we conduct more research on how to utilise the compound to its full potential while minimising any unwanted effects.  For all we know, we could be on the brink of something big with cannabidiol and the implications could shape the global cannabis industry.

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Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin

Josh is a Perth-based writer with a background in psychology and pharmacology. Through his studies he has gained an interest in abnormal psychology, mental health and psychopharmacology and has reported on these topics. Currently, his main focus is on cannabinoids and their medical potential.

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