CBD (cannabidiol) is basically the Meghan Markle of the wellness world: Newly minted supplement-shelf royalty, itâs getting shout-outs absolutely everywhere right now, thanks to its everywoman appeal. (Insomnia? Period cramps? Uncomfortable shoes? CBDâs said to help with all of these things, and then some.)
But beyond its cool-girl faĂ§ade, thereâs still a lot that most of us donât know about CBDâa key compound found in cannabis that bestows many of the plantâs medicinal properties, minus the high. But once youâve chosen to add it to your wellness routine and start to research the various CBD products on offer, youâre forced to answer a lot of questions without obvious answers. Like, is there a difference between CBD sourced from hemp vs. marijuana? Does it matter whether youâre getting it from a drink, a lotion, or a gourmet meal? Whatâs the deal if it doesnât seem to be working for you (is it just snake oil)? And is it even legal where you live?
Head spinning yet? Consider this your complete buyersâ guide to CBD, filled with expert advice on navigating some of the, um, hazier aspects of 2018âs most buzzed-about supplement.
A big part of CBDâs appeal is that itâs said to assist with a super broad range of wellness concerns. According to Cannabis Feminist Jessica Assaf, co-founder ofÂ Hempia, its multitasking abilities lie in the fact that CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid systemÂ (ECS), which is found throughout the human bodyâs nervous system, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune system.
âWhen external forces disturb the bodyâs homeostasis, the endocannabinoid system helpsÂ our body push back and regain balance,â she says. Cannabis compounds like CBD are thought to assist in this balancing act, which can be disrupted by an unhealthy diet, stress, or toxin exposure, by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the body.
âIf you are in perfect health, you probably donât need cannabinoids.ââJessica Assaf, Cannabis Feminist and cofounder of Hempia
That said, itâs a myth that everyone should supplement with CBD. If youâre generally healthy, says Assaf, you may find that it doesnât do much for you. âWe do not always need cannabinoids all of the time,â she stresses. âIf you are in perfect health, you probably donât need cannabinoids, because they are only important when you are âout of balance.ââ But if youâre experiencing issues with any of the aforementioned systemsâand, honestly, who isnât?â it may be worth asking your doctor whether CBD could benefit you.
Despite all of the fanfare around CBD, scientists are still in the early stages of studying it at a clinical level. âThere is very little data from rigorous scientific research on the therapeutic effects of CBD,â says J. H. Atkinson, MD, of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego. That doesnât mean itÂ doesnât live up to the hypeâit just means more clinical research needs to be done to make those arguments ironclad.
Part of this is because of how cannabis is regulated (or notâŚ) in the United States, says Assaf. âHistorically, it has been very difficult to initiate and execute clinical trials in thisÂ country because of the volatile regulatoryÂ landscape and the (mis)classification of cannabis as a schedule-1 drug with âno perceivedÂ medical benefits,ââ she says. (This class of controlled substance also includes drugs such as LSD, heroin, and ecstasy.)
This is changing, however. âOver the past few years there have been hundreds of CBD-related studies across dozens of countries and institutions. Many of them go unnoticed, but they do exist,â Assaf points out. During Well+Goodâs recent TALKS panel on CBD,Â Chris Sayegh, owner and head chef ofÂ The Herbal Chef, added that there are many more studies conducted in the U.S. than the general public knows about as well, but because theyâre carried out by private companies, the results are confidential.
âThere is very little data from rigorous scientific research on the therapeutic effects of CBD.â
âJ. H. Atkinson, MD
Some of this early research indicates CBD may have the potential to treat conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure, skin issues, and pain. However, many of these studies involve small sample sizes or animalârather than humanâsubjects. Evidence is also conflicting in some cases, says Dr. Atkinson. âOne study suggested CBD might be a useful addition when given with conventional antipsychotic medications in theÂ treatment ofÂ schizophrenia;Â another study found no benefit,â he says by way of example.
Even so, now that the FDA has approved a CBD-based medication to treat epilepsy in children, more rigorous research into the compoundâs health benefits is likely to be on the horizon. (One example: UCSDâs CMCR has been funded to conduct a clinical trial of CBD for autism in children.) âIn 2016, the U.S. Pharmacopeia initiated a process that may eventually return cannabis to its [official list of medicinal drugs],â says Assaf. âNow, itâs up to us to make the research more accessible to the mainstream consumer.â Bottom line: Watch this space.
Read the label of any CBD product and youâll probably see that the active ingredient comes from one of two plantsâhemp or marijuana. The difference between the two is simple, says Dr. Atkinson.
âThe federal government defines hemp as a cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by weight,â he says. (THC is the compound in cannabis that makes you highâand 0.3 percent THC isnât enough to impact your mental state.) âA cannabis plant with a greater THC content is what is often termedÂ marijuana.âÂ Essentially, low-THC, hemp-derived CBD grown according to industrial hemp farming regulations is widely known to be legal everywhere. (Although thatâs not always technically the caseâmore on that in a minute.)
âPure CBD, whether derived from cannabis or hemp or made in a lab, is ultimately the same molecule and will have the same effect.ââJeff Chen, MD
When comparing the CBD found in hemp and marijuana, thereâs really no difference, says Jeff Chen, MD, founder and director of UCLAâs Cannabis Research Initiative. âPure CBD, whether derived from cannabis or hemp or made in a lab, is ultimately the same molecule and will have the same effect,â he says. Adds Cannuka cofounder Michael Bumgarner, who has a background in farming (and was also a panelist at the Well+Good TALK): âA molecule is composed of a specific arrangement and configuration of atoms with a specific bonding pattern. The strain of cannabis plant, regardless of its percentage of CBD and THC, does not change these fundamental truths.â
But unless youâre buying your CBD products from a dispensary, youâre never going to encounter CBD sourced from marijuana. (The kind you can buy online and in regular retail stores is always sourced from hemp.) âCBD derived from the cannabis plant may still have high levels of THC,â points out Nick Danias, cofounder of The Pottery, a dispensary in Los Angeles. So yes, some CBD products can still get you high, despite reports to the contrary.
Two other buzzy phrases youâre likely to see when CBD shopping are âfull-spectrumâ and âisolate.â This essentially has to do with how the CBD product is formulatedâCBD isolate is shorthand for the CBD molecule standing on its own, while whole-plant CBD contains other compounds from the cannabis plant as well.
Thereâs quite a bit of debate in the industry right now around whether one is superior to the other, and there hasnât been enough research to settle the argument definitively. âI hear from scientists on both sides,â says Bumgarner. âSome say there is no difference, because once you extract CBD, our bodies process it on an individual basis. The other side says full-spectrum is the only way to go.â
He personally chose to use a CBD isolate for Cannukaâs skin-care products, because he says this makes it easier to control the dose and purity of the molecule from a manufacturing perspective. âTaking it down to the isolate allows us to make sure the CBD weâre putting in batch one is the same as batch 101,â he says. Studies have shown that CBD in isolation may, indeed, be helpful when applied to skin cells, reducing sebum production and inflammation, for example. (Bumgarner admits, however, that he isnât sure whether CBD isolate would have the same impact when taken orally or for non-skin-related conditions.)
In the other camp, Assaf believes full-spectrum CBD products are likely to be more beneficial, from a health perspective. âWhile CBD may have some light benefits as a single molecule, it needs the other active compounds of the plant for optimal results,â she argues, noting that these include other cannabinoids and terpenes, which give cannabis its distinctive aroma. âThese active compounds modulate the effects of one another, reduce the side effects of one constituent while enhancing the effects of another. Thatâs why itâs so important to choose a whole-plant, full-spectrum hemp extract.â
A 2015 animal study showed full-spectrum CBD extract to be significantly more effective in treating inflammatory conditions than âpureâ CBD molecules.
An oft-cited 2015 animal study backed up this theory, showing full-spectrum CBD extract to be significantly more effective in treating inflammatory conditions than âpureâ CBD molecules, when taken internally.Â That said, the effects of a given CBD product will vary based on which other cannabinoids (THC and CBD arenât the only onesâthere are at least 113 known cannabinoids) and terpenes are present in the formula, says Dr. Chen. âThere are differences in the other compounds present alongside the CBD, hence why there could be a difference in effect between the cannabis extract or the hemp extract,â he points out. Figuring out the best option for you is a matter of trial and error.
High levels of THC, however, donât necessarily need to be part of the mix, says Assaf. âThere are certain medical conditions and instances that require THC for optimal results,â she says, noting that pain and nausea relief are two examples. âBut generally, we believe the hemp species provides all of the benefits of cannabis and more.â (However, Dr. Chen adds, this hasnât really been studied clinically, so thereâs no way to confirm or deny that theory.)
When it comes to the legality of CBD products, things are a lot murkier than the media makes them sound. âItâs complicated. Thereâs no way to get around it,â says Daniel Shortt, a Seattle-based attorney who works with companies in the cannabis industry. âThe idea that CBD is just legal in all 50 states is, at best, an oversimplification of the current status of the law.â
Hereâs the deal: All products made from the stalks and seeds of the hemp plant are legal everywhere, and have been for a long time nowâthink, the hemp seeds and culinary hemp oil you put on your salads. âThe problem with that is the mature stalks and seeds donât have a ton of CBD or any other cannabinoid in them,â says Shortt, adding that the flowers of the plant are where most of the good stuff hangs out.
The passage of the 2014 Farm Bill allowed farmers to start growing high-CBD hemp strains, which are often used to make the CBD products that are so popular today. âThe Farm Bill allows states to implement pilot research programs and allows for the cultivation of industrial hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC,â explains Shortt. âProtection isnât limited to the [stalks and seeds] of the plant with industrial hemp. Now, you have industrial hemp that can be bred for high-CBD strainsâand because of this trend, every hemp farmer is going for as much CBD as possible.â
But thereâs still quite a bit of contradiction between government agencies regarding the law, because states are creating their own regulations about whatâs legal and what isnât when it comes to CBD. âYouâve got a quilt of different regulatory approaches, and every state has a different nuance,â says Shortt. Many of them are surprisingly strict. âEven though Washington was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, it doesnât actually allow for the processing of industrial hemp intended for human consumption,â he says.
âThe idea that CBD is just legal in all 50 states is, at best, an oversimplification of the current status of the law.ââDaniel Shortt, attorney
California may be heading in the same direction. Just this month, the stateâs department of public health said that CBD from hemp canât be added to âfood, drink, confection, condiment, or chewing gum.â (Marijuana-derived CBD, however, is legal when sold through the appropriate dispensary channels.) âUntil the FDA rules that industrial-hemp-derived CBD oil and CBD products can be used as a food or California makes a determination that they are safe to use for human and animal consumption, CBD products are not an approved food, food ingredient, food additive, or dietary supplement,â the agency said in a statement. Whether the state will actually devote resources to enforcing this, however, still remains to be seenâespecially because it directly contradicts language in Californiaâs Industrial Hemp Program literature that states âevery preparationâ of the plant is legal.
But while California may be surprisingly strict in its CBD regulation, other states you might not expect are embracing CBD, says Shortt. âYou have a state like Indiana, which is not friendly to marijuana, thatâs actually taking an active approach in regulating CBD,â he says. âThey have this fully robust regulatory framework as to how CBD products are to be labeledâthe batch number, manufacture date, level of CBD.â
This is obviously creating a ton of confusion for makers and sellers of CBD products, but a breakthrough may be in sight if theÂ Hemp Farming Act of 2018 is passed this year. âIt would still allow states to take different approaches, but weâd have a clearer baseline of whatâs legal and it would allow for expansion of the already vastly expanding CBD market,â says Shortt. âItâs a really important moment because the government is acknowledging the cannabis plant has medical value.â Until then, reference your stateâs laws to find out whatâs allowable where you live.
Finding your perfect CBD match is really just a matter of testing out different formulations and finding what works best for you, our experts say. âYou can experiment with low doses of CBD oil or cream to understand how your body reacts and adjust if needed,â says Danias. (There are very few side effects associated with CBD, but you should still talk to your doctor before using it, to ensure it doesnât interact with any meds youâre taking.)
In general, says Assaf, there are a few guidelines you can follow. âIf you are experiencing gut issues or overall inflammation, a tincture will target the issue more effectively than a topical,â she says. âIf you are struggling with muscle pain, soreness, or skin irritation, a topical would be best. If you want to tackle stress or anxiety, a vape might be easier for you.â
In the future, expect to see even more advanced and effective CBD options enter the market. For instance, Kush Queen founder Olivia Alexander recently launched the Defynt Anti-Serum, a CBD facial serum made using nanotechnology, which is said to allow the product to penetrate more deeply into skin. Hempia is also focusing on innovation, says Assaf. âWe are discovering the importance of extraction method, consistency, dose, and in some cases, nanotechnology to ensure the cannabinoids break through the skin barrier in topical applications,â she says.
One of the trickiest things about using CBD is that its effects are very individualized. âI donât believe we know whether CBD works, whether it works for some people or not others, or for some conditions but not others,â says Dr. Atkinson. And until more research is done on CBD, specifically, we wonât be able to definitively answer these questions.
It also doesnât help that thereâs no nationwide consensus as to what dose or concentration is most helpful, from a therapeutic perspective. âThere is not enough scientific evidence backed by the federal government to accurately detail out dosing procedures,â explains Danias of The Pottery. Adds Alexander: âItâs all about the ingredients, dosage, and concentration of CBDâand a lot of CBD products do not even specify how much CBD is in the product. Customers should expect brands to label the amount of CBD, and consumers should not invest in products that donât.â
That might not be enough to ensure youâre getting a legit product, however. A 2017 study by Penn Medicine researchers found that up to 70 percent of CBD products may actually be mislabeled. The team analyzed 84 different CBD products from undisclosed brands and found that 42 percent of them contained more CBD than advertised; 26 percent contained less; and some also contained a âsignificantâ amount of THC, despite not being labeled as such. âThe biggest implication is that many of these patients may not be getting the proper dosage,â said Marcel Bonn-Miller, PhD, the lead author of the study. âTheyâre either not getting enough for it to be effective or theyâre getting too much.â (Excess CBD can also cause the product to be ineffective, research shows.)
A 2017 study by Penn Medicine researchers found that up to 70 percent of CBD products may actually be mislabeled.
Governments are starting to crack down on this. âCalifornia is instituting a program of testing products sold by licensed dispensaries, to ensure that the label describes what actually is in the product,â says Dr. Atkinson. Yet itâs still up to you to research the products youâre buying and making sure theyâre coming from reputable manufacturers. And with no single third-party resource available to compile this info, doing your due diligence means reading the fine print and Googling the brandâs founders.
âI use the same values and practice for buying CBD as I do for food and personal care products: Ingredients matter, know your founders, buy from companies with a mission beyond profit, and demand transparency from seed to soil,â says Assaf. âChoose a whole-plant, full-spectrum product that has been extracted without harmful solvents like butane, by the cleanest methods possible. Demand the full cannabinoid profile. Many companies are selling snake oil, so it is critical that we set higher standards for the industry moving forward.â No pun intended.
Another reason to research your CBD products: Fake ones are making people sick. Plus, hereâs a little more guidance on how to find the dose thatâs right for you.Â