Cannabidiol (CBD) is a naturally occurring compound found in the flowering buds of hemp plants. This type of compound is classified as a cannabinoid, and CBD is one of several cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant family. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is another such compound, and its psychoactive effects can produce euphoric highs. THC is prominent in certain cannabis plants, but hemp only contains trace amounts. CBD does not have psychoactive properties, and studies suggest it reduces or delays the euphoric effects of THC.
Traditionally, people consume CBD by smoking hemp or cannabis flower, but new extraction methods allow chemists to isolate and extract CBD from the plant material and add it to an oil base. CBD oil concentrate can then be vaped, ingested or applied to the skin as a topical cream.
How CBD Works
Each person has a cannabinoid receptor system in the brain that includes receptor type 1 (CB1) primarily in the central and peripheral nervous system and receptor type 2 (CB2) primarily in the immune system. The cannabinoid receptor system plays an important role in maintaining a stable biological environment.
THC binds directly to these receptors, CBD does not, but it does bind to other receptors associated with adenosine (A2A), serotonin, pain perception, mood and inflammation, among others. Likewise, CBD acts on cannabinoid receptors indirectly through similar compounds (endocannabinoids) produced by the body. In addition to stimulating endocannabinoid production, CBD suppresses the enzyme that metabolizes them, leading to increased receptor activity. Studies suggest CBD might also help increase cannabinoid receptor density and coupling efficiency and help deactivate the GPR55 receptor associated with cancer cell proliferation.
These are all a bunch of big terms that most people don’t know or understand. What does it mean in a nutshell? CBD acts on the central nervous and immune systems in very distinct ways, and these actions appear to have medical applications.
Medical Use of CBD
Researchers first identified the chemical structure of CBD in 1963, and it sparked an initial wave of medical research into its antiepileptic and sedative properties. These studies, while informative, only captured a glimpse of CBD’s medical potential, and renewed research in the new millennium identified antiinflammatory, antioxidant, neuroprotective, analgesic, anxiolytic, antiemetic and neuroleptic potential.
When consumed orally, CBD might help with anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, inflammation, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), opiate addiction, neurodegenerative disorders, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease and a debilitating form of epilepsy called Dravet’s Syndrome. The British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2013 added that CBD has anticancer properties that interfere with “tumor neovascularization, cancer cell migration, adhesion, invasion and metastasization.”
When applied to the skin, CBD topicals may help relieve pain and inflammation. For example, researchers treated joint pain and swelling in rats with CBD and published the findings in the European Journal of Pain: “Transdermal CBD gel significantly reduced joint swelling, limb posture scores as a rating of spontaneous pain, immune cell infiltration and thickening of the synovial membrane in a dose‐dependent manner…. These data indicate that topical CBD application has therapeutic potential for relief of arthritis pain‐related behaviours and inflammation without evident side‐effects.”
When it comes to topical use, some companies suggest CBD might also provide beauty benefits, but the current state of evidence suggests these claims are suspect at best. Studies show that seed oil is the part of the hemp plant that nourishes the skin and provides beauty benefits, whereas studies on CBD-related claims lack data, evidence and involve “regulatory concerns.” It is possible that companies promote CBD in their beauty products as a way to justify inflating the price.
Ongoing studies will confirm or disprove all the potential benefits listed above. To date, the only medical CBD use approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is to treat pedatric epilespy and seizures associated with tuberous sclerosis complex.