What is CBD? An Informative Guide

What is CBD? 

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a naturally-occurring bioactive compound found in hemp plants. It is the most abundant of a family of about 120 compounds in hemp called phytocannabinoids[1]. CBD acts on your brain and body through a network of receptors called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Among its many beneficial health effects CBD has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation, alleviate anxiety, protect the nervous system, and prevent seizures[2-4]. It is non-psychotropic, meaning that it doesn’t alter your mood, cognitive abilities, or behavior, which means you can derive the benefits of CBD at any time of the day, including at work or school, without any intoxicating effects. 

CBD also has a high safety profile, which gives it a potential advantage over some over-the-counter remedies. Together, these attributes make CBD a useful remedy for some common ailments and a popular supplement among health-conscious consumers.

Most people experience few to no side effects from taking CBD in moderation[5] though, as with any supplement, response can vary from person to person and interactions with other drugs can occur[6]. For these reasons it’s best to start with a low dose and proceed slowly, and if you take prescription medications check with your doctor first. 

What Are Cannabinoids? 

Cannabinoids are compounds that activate certain nerve receptors in the brain and body. Your body produces its own cannabinoids, known as endocannaboids (endo- means “within”). There are estimated to be at least 15 different endocannabinoids [7], one is called anandamide, aptly named after the Sanskrit word for “bliss”. 

Cannabinoids are also found in plants and these are known as phytocannabinoids (phyto- means “plant”). Cannabis and hemp plants are the main source of phytocannabinoids, the two most prevalent being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD. The concentrations of each vary widely depending on growing conditions and selective breeding. In cannabis, THC levels can be quite high, while hemp plants are selectively grown to favor CBD with minimal amounts of THC present.

Additionally, some common edible and medicinal plants contain cannabinoids or cannabinoid-like compounds, which helps to explain their popular uses. Some of these plants include: echinacea, an antiviral herb that activates cannabinoid receptors in the immune system[8]; chocolate, which contains a cannabinoid-like compound that helps maintain anandamide levels; black pepper – which contains a compound that protects cannabinoids from being broken down[9]; and kava – a calming medicinal herb with a cannabinoid-like compound that activates cannabinoid receptors in the brain[10].

The Endocannabinoid System 

Cannabinoids and their receptors throughout the brain and body form an interconnected network called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The main job of the ECS is to maintain homeostasis – the ability to maintain a state of internal balance in response to changes in your internal and external environment, such as regulating your body temperature in various conditions.  

The ECS also coordinates a wide range of activities, acting in a supportive, coordinating role to keep processes running smoothly. As such, it regulates appetite, sleep, memory, and learning; modulates your stress response and mood; and controls pain and inflammation[11]. It also contributes to liver, cardiovascular, GI, muscle, immune, and reproductive function[11].  

However, the most important activities of the ECS may be in pain control and immunity function as evidenced by the higher density of cannabinoid receptors in those areas.

There are two types of cannabinoid receptors in the ECS:

CB1 receptors, which are mostly concentrated in the central nervous system – your brain and spinal cord and mostly in areas of the central nervous system that have to do with processing pain messages from the body[12].CB2 receptors, which are more evenly distributed throughout the body and are especially prevalent in the immune system[12].

What Is the Difference Between CBD and THC? 

CBD and THC are nearly identical in structure and offer many of the same health benefits. Like CBD, THC has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation[13], improve sleep[14], relax muscles[15], lower blood pressure[16], and alleviate anxiety and depression[16]. 

The most significant difference between the two cannabinoids is that THC has intoxicating effects while CBD is non-intoxicating. This gives CBD a big advantage in terms of where and when it can be used. CBD can be discreetly used at work or school. It can also be used while driving, operating dangerous equipment. Parents can feel good about giving CBD to their children (with their pediatrician’s guidance) and even pets can safely use CBD because it is free of the mood-altering effects of THC. Also, since there is no need to worry about intoxication CBD can be used in a wider range of dosages than THC.  

Hemp CBD vs Cannabis CBD 

The terms hemp and cannabis are common names for the same plant, Cannabis sativa, the most widely cultivated species of the Cannabaceae family. Whether CBD comes from a hemp plant or a cannabis plant, it is the same compound with the same structure and similar effects on the body. 

The difference between hemp CBD and cannabis CBD is based on the amount of THC present in the plant the CBD is extracted from. In order to make CBD safe for use as an over-the-counter product it needs to have a minimal level of THC. So, the distinction between these types of CBD is actually about THC and not CBD itself. 

Cannabis plants bred to have minimal levels of THC are designated hemp plants and cannabis plants bred to have high levels of THC are designated as cannabis plants. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines hemp as: 

“…cannabis (Cannabis stativa L), and derivatives of cannabis, with extremely low (not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis) concentrations of THC”[17].

In 2018, the FDA legalized the cultivation of hemp and the sale of hemp products, including CBD[18]. 

The Entourage Effect  

CBD is by far the most prevalent of all the phytocannabinoids in hemp, with the other cannabinoids being present at mostly trace levels. For this reason, CBD receives the most attention. However, the dozens of other cannabinoids, as well as numerous non-cannabinoid compounds are valuable for a couple of very important reasons. 

One reason is that each phytocannabinoid has its own specialized function. Some are better at alleviating pain, or exerting calming effects, or preventing seizures, and some even help control blood sugar and insulin levels[19-22]. As we learn more about the individual phytocannabinoids, strains of hemp and cannabis may be cultivated to more effectively target particular health conditions.

Another reason is that all of the bioactive compounds in hemp complement and support each other. When used in combination their effect is more powerful than any single one by itself. This synergistic relationship, known as the entourage effect, has been documented in clinical studies[23,24]. 

A CBD product that contains all of the active constituents in hemp is known as full-spectrum CBD while CBD that has been purified to remove everything besides CBD is called CBD isolate. Because of the entourage effect you can use lower doses of full-spectrum CBD than you would need if you use CBD isolate to achieve the same CBD benefits.  

Different Types of CBD 

In between CBD isolate and full spectrum CBD there is a middle-of-the-road option called broad-spectrum CBD. As with the distinction between hemp CBD and cannabis CBD, these various categories of CBD are defined by the presence or absence of bioactive compounds other than CBD. Here’s how it works:

In addition to being a super-concentrated source of cannabinoids hemp also contains an array of beneficial phytonutrient compounds that are found in many other plants. The initial extraction process in manufacturing CBD oil brings with it all of the active components of hemp. Some you may be familiar with, such as flavonoid antioxidants, and others are less commonly known, such as compounds called terpenes. These phytonutrient compounds provide their own benefits as well as add to the entourage effect in various ways. 

Here’s what the non-CBD components – flavonoids and terpenes – bring to the table:

Hemp Flavonoids

Hemp contains an array of the same flavonoid compounds that give many edible and medicinal plants their health-boosting effects, such as protecting against cardiovascular and neurodegenerative conditions and preventing cancer[25]. One hemp flavonoid called apigenin has antianxiety and anti-inflammatory effects. Another flavonoid which is unique to cannabis and hemp, called cannflavin, has been found to be 30 times more anti-inflammatory than aspirin[25]. 

Hemp Terpenes

Terpenes are the compounds that give essential oils their pungent flavors and aromas and also their healthful benefits. Hemp contains as many as 200 different terpenes with various activities such as nerve and muscle calming, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, antioxidant and anticancer properties to name just a few [25]. Some hemp terpenes contribute to the entourage effect by activating CB1 or CB2 receptors, or by influencing the binding of phytocannabinoids to their receptors[25]. 

To gain a better understanding of these types of CBD and their best uses, let’s take a closer look at what each is made up of and how their composition affects their activity in the body. 

Full Spectrum CBD

contains all of the active constituents in the initial extraction process, including the full gamut of phytocannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes. Notably, full spectrum CBD also contains small amounts (0.3% or less) of THC. It provides all of the entourage benefits hemp has to offer without the intoxicating effects when taken in moderate doses. 

However, in higher doses, the amount of THC in full spectrum CBD may cause mild intoxication in some individuals. If you are particularly sensitive to THC and want to use high doses of CBD then full spectrum CBD may not be the best choice for you.

Broad Spectrum CBD

is full spectrum hemp extract, i.e. it contains CBD and other phytocannabinoids, as well as flavonoids and terpenes, except that the THC has been removed. 

CBD Isolate

is a highly purified form of CBD that contains more than 95% CBD by weight[26]. CBD isolate doesn’t provide the added benefits and synergistic effects of non-CBD phytocannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids, but it has the advantage of being odorless and flavorless. It is also generally less expensive than broad spectrum or full spectrum CBD. 

How Take or Use CBD 

A variety of CBD delivery methods is available to choose from and they can be broadly divided into three main categories: oral, topical, or inhaled. Each delivery method offers its own advantages in terms of potency, convenience, and personal preference. 

Oral CBD

Oral products include oils, tinctures, capsules, softgels, pills, and gummies and other edible forms. They offer the advantage of being portable and easy to take. You can carry them with you to work and take doses discreetly throughout the day, as needed. 

Oral CBD products go through the digestive system so they are subject to stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and metabolization in the liver that can degrade them, lowering their potency. However, they remain the most popular forms of CBD due, in part, to their convenience. And, because CBD is fat soluble it is possible to reach and maintain optimal tissue levels with consistent use. 

Oils and Tinctures

Both of these CBD products come in dropper bottles, but there are some important distinctions between these two preparations.  

CBD oils are usually extracted via CO2.  They take longer to absorb than tinctures but they lack the alcohol content, which is an advantage for those who don’t tolerate alcohol-based products or prefer to avoid them.

CBD tinctures use an alcohol extraction method. They contain a wider range of active compounds than CBD oils. The alcohol content gives them a longer shelf life, but they tend to have a more bitter flavor. Tinctures are meant to be used sublingually by placing drops under the tongue where they absorb rapidly through the mucous membrane, but they also leave your system faster than oils.

Capsules and Softgels 

Capsules and soft gels are usually standardized to contain a precise and consistent amount so you can know with certainty how much CBD you are getting per dose. Their convenience and familiarity make them an easy choice for most consumers and for these reasons they are very popular.

CBD capsules and softgels are mostly interchangeable in terms of type and amount of CBD they may contain. Softgels are made of one seamless shell while capsules are composed of two pieces. This makes softgels more airtight so they are better able to preserve and prevent oxidation of CBD and have a longer shelf-life. However, they are more expensive to manufacture than capsules so will be at a higher price point. 

Gummies and Other Edibles 

CBD edibles are a popular way to consume CBD and, according to a 2020 survey study, 56% of respondents reported that edibles are their preferred form of CBD, followed closely by tinctures at 54%[30]. Gummies – a soft, chewy candy version of CBD, are perhaps the most widely used edible form. They are made with CBD isolate, broad spectrum, or full spectrum CBD, and come in a range of dosages from 5 mg to 30 mg per gummy, so it’s important to check labels to be sure of what you are getting. Their sweetness and added flavors help mask the hemp flavor and they provide a standard dose per gummy, making them reliable, convenient, portable, and fun to take. Other edible CBD products include CBD lollipops, cookies, energy drinks, and rehydration drinks.

CBD Topicals: Creams, Lotions, and Patches

CBD creams, lotions, and patches pay provide quick relief of skin conditions, such as acne, itching, eczema, atopic dermatitis, and speeding minor wound healing[31]. They can also be applied over sore joints and muscles to provide targeted relief[31]. 

CBD topicals absorb slowly and stay in your system longer so their effects are more gentle and sustained compared to other methods. Because of this characteristic topicals are less likely to cause some of the side effects that may occur with rapidly absorbed types of CBD due to high peak levels[32]. They also bypass the digestive process, which means less of the CBD is degraded and more is used.

Transdermal patches provide an added advantage in that they stay in place for days without rubbing or washing off. They also provide a steady infusion of CBD over time, which makes them potentially useful as a treatment for patients with chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, [33] peripheral neuropathy[34], and others. 

Inhaled CBD: Vaping

A popular method of consuming CBD, claiming third place in the 2020 survey at 38% [30]. This method uses a device called a vaporizer, or vaping pen. A heating element in the vaping pen vaporizes CBD oil contained in a cartridge. As air is drawn through the vaping pen the vaporized CBD oil is inhaled into the lungs.  

CBD for Pets

Many of the same ways CBD helps humans may also apply to pets and, in fact, cannabis has a storied history of use in the animal world. Ancient Greeks used whole cannabis leaves to dress sores and wounds in horses and, in the 19th century, an Irish physician noted that it stimulated appetite and digestion and allayed pain in dogs[35]. 

Though modern studies on therapeutic benefits of CBD for pets are few, they are promising. One clinical trial found that CBD decreased pain and increased activity levels in dogs with osteoarthritis[36]. Additionally, the American Kennel Club reports that there is some anecdotal evidence that CBD reduces inflammation, controls seizures, manages anxiety, and may have cancer preventive benefits[37]. 

Benefits of CBD

Pain Reducing 

CBD is thought to alleviate pain via a combination of inhibiting inflammation and modulating pain processing pathways in the brain. CBD transdermal cream has significantly reduced low back pain[38] and in a clinical trial of chronic pain patients, 53% were able to reduce the amount of opioid medications they required to manage their pain and almost all reported improvements in sleep and other quality of life measurements[39]. 


Studies show that CBD activates CB1, serotonin, and other receptors that regulate fear and anxiety[40]. Brain imaging shows that CBD reduces blood flow to the amygdala, the brain’s primitive fear response center[40]. It has been shown to reduce anxiety related to such activities as public speaking and undergoing CAT scans. 

Neuroprotective and Anti-seizure

CBD’s anti-inflammatory activity contributes to its pain-relieving effects and also protects against nerve damage in the brain, which can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and in the peripheral nervous system, where oxidative damage and inflammation can cause a debilitating condition known as peripheral neuropathy[34]. Additionally, CBD’s interaction with nerve receptors helps modulate and prevent nerves from becoming overly excitable, which can lead to nerve damage, for example, in seizure disorders. The first and to date the only, FDA approved use for CBD is for a severe type of epilepsy[41].  


It’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects make CBD beneficial for the cardiovascular system. CBD has been found to protect the delicate inner linings of blood vessels (endothelium) from damaging effects of high blood glucose levels, influence the activity of white blood cells, and regulate blood clotting[43]. CBD also lowers blood pressure by relaxing arteries and protects the heart muscle during stressful low oxygen states, such as during stroke or heart attack[43].

Where to Buy CBD Products?

As with anything related to your health you want to have confidence that the CBD you buy is pure, potent, and manufactured to the highest industry standards. 

What Makes a Great CBD Company?

Sourcing and Manufacturing 

The more information the company’s website provides about where and how they source their CBD and the manufacturing processes they use the better. Do they display the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) seal? Approval from this and other industry oversight organizations shows you that the company is diligent and dedicated to staying in business for the long-term

Testing, Testing

The best quality control indicator for ensuring a product’s purity and potency is use of a 3rd party lab. A company that contracts with an independent testing facility will state this in their marketing materials and will either post the latest results on their website or give you the option of requesting the most recent certificate of analysis (COA). The COA will reveal if there are any pesticide residues, residues from a chemical extraction process, toxic metals or other contaminants and, if so, their levels.  

How to Find the Right Product for You

Check the Label

Discerning shoppers can find a wealth of useful information displayed on product labels. This is where you can check that the product is guaranteed to contain less than 0.3% THC or whether it is entirely free of THC.

In addition to ingredients and dosage information, if you are vegan or if you prefer organic or fair-trade sourcing, the label will display that information as well, so you can find the right CBD products for you. 

Browse the Website

Is the company’s website up-to-date and easy to navigate? Does it contain educational articles or a blog and if so, is the information reliable and non-biased? 

Review the Product Line

Does the company offer a variety of products and formulations to choose from? Are the products marketed to a particular group, such as younger individuals or athletes?

Reach Out To Customer Service

Responsive, friendly customer service can go a long way to building a company’s reputation and earning customer loyalty. You should be able to reach a representative on the phone or live chat.

Shipping and Returns 

Where do they ship from and what are their average delivery times to your area? What shipping carrier do they use? This may be a consideration based on your location or preferences. Do they offer free or discounted shipping for orders over a certain minimum? Does the company stand behind their products with a reasonable return policy? 

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