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CBD: what it is, what it can treat and the future for this marijuana compound

Cannabidiol (CBD) has dramatically increased its profile of late, after first featuring as a miracle healing compound in the CNN documentary Weed, which was broadcast to homes all over America. The documentary focussed on the marijuana molecule’s potential at threating serious, life-threatening forms of epilepsy, particularly in children.

The increased interest in CBD has led to increased research, and over the past couple of years, a ton of new studies are helping to confirm the claims made about the substance. We now know that CBD can reduce anxiety, ease chronic pain and inflammation, stop spasms, reduce psychosis and a whole lot more.

But what exactly is CBD, what distinguishes it from the better-known CBD, and does this compound truly have a future in mainstream medication? We’ll answer all of those questions and much more in this post.

What is CBD?

CBD is generally the second-most present compound in marijuana. But unlike the most-dominant compound, THC, CBD is not psychoactive and therefore cannot intoxicate the user. While THC is also imbued with medical qualities, the psychoactive nature of the compound has always stifled its progress in the mainstream.

With CBD, the user shouldn’t expect a cerebral high, but natural relaxation. A good CBD experience tends to be calming and peaceful, with the user always kept totally aware of their surroundings.

Therefore, despite CBD still having a physically sedating effect on the body, the public and potential patients have been more receptive to the compound than CBD, given it isn’t psychoactive and can treat a number of conditions in various areas.

Preclinical trials and research on CBD has slowly been taking place around the world for 40 years or more. But due to restrictions, the U.S. is still playing catch up. However, from all of the studies conducted, we can confidently say that CBD has shown medicinal properties as an antidepressant, anxiolytic, neuroprotectant, anti-psychotic, anticonvulsant, analgesic and an anti-inflammatory.

When used medically, CBD is often administered as an oil, since the sublingual intake method is suitable for all ages. Those with chronic illnesses tend to need strong CBD doses, and use CBD oil which has been extracted from CBD-dominant marijuana strains, including Charlotte’s Web.

How does CBD react with the body?

The cannabis sativa plant contains more than 100 cannabinoids (compounds which are unique to cannabis) – they bind or interact with the cannabinoids receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS). CBD is primarily found in the resin glands of the female marijuana plant.

Receptors are in many of the body’s organs (including the digestive tract, reproductive organs and the skin), although the majority are situated in the central nervous system.

Consider cannabinoids to be the keys and cannabinoid receptors to be the locks. When your body takes in marijuana and therefore cannabinoids, these “keys” interact with the appropriate “locks” and cause the cannabis reactions that we’re familiar with (e.g. relaxation, increased appetite).

Essentially, the ECS is a massive neurotransmitter system, with cell receptor proteins interacting as part of one big network which helps regulate many variables. These include appetite, mood, sleep, bone development, reproduction, pain perception and more.

The ECS is responsible for homeostatic regulation (keeping a well-tuned energy balance), stress management and recovery, good immune balance and neuroprotection. Given all that the ECS does, it’s remarkable to think that scientists only first discovered it in the 1990s.

CBD’s interactions with the ECS help produce the therapeutic effects that we know the compound for. This is possible because CBD closely resembles chemicals, known as endocannabinoids, that are naturally produced by the body.

It’s incredible that a chemical within a plant could create so much media attention, and do it repeatedly. We are learning new, remarkable facts about CBD all the time, and the public is increasingly aware of its medical qualities and ability to save lives.

It was the story of a young girl named Charlotte Figi, who featured in that Weed documentary on CNN, which really helped boost the profile of CBD.

Charlotte’s story

Charlotte Figi suffers with Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy which can seriously affect a child’s quality of life and even be life-threatening. Dravet’s was hindering Charlotte’s ability to live a normal childhood from before the age of 5 – she could no longer laugh nor communicate due to the epileptic condition.

Around 1 in 30,000 infants globally are afflicted with Dravet’s syndrome. The condition generally takes hold after the first few months, when it becomes apparent that the affected child is not developing as they should.

Dravet’s can cause severe seizures as early as three months. The convulsions can last for several hours, and sufferers may even lose consciousness during a seizure.

The Figis had nearly lost hope following years of seizures and ER trips. Experimental medication failed to have any significant impact, and complications made matters even worse. When doctors told the family they were “at the end of the line,” they initially believed that there was nothing else they could do. That was until they made the ground-breaking decision to try treating Charlotte with the therapeutic CBD compound.

They could never have believed that their choice would create so much national attention and a political movement to improve access to CBD across the nation. But that’s exactly what happened.

The long-forgotten cannabinoid

The Figis’ initial search for non-psychoactive marijuana was rather fruitless, even though they were in the pot-loving state of Colorado. Until recently, cannabis cultivators’ focus was on breeding potent, THC-laden marijuana, to meet the recreational demand for top quality psychoactive herb.

Over the past forty years or so, marijuana has dramatically increased in potency. From THC percentages of around 5 percent in the 1970s, you can now – in recreational states – walk straight into a dispensary and purchase cannabis boasting more than 20 percent THC. The sole goal of increasing THC concentrations meant that CBD took a back seat.

While THC also has medical uses, the cannabis scene had reached a point where those wishing to use CBD as medicine were pretty much out of options. Thankfully for the Figis, they stumbled across the Stanley Brothers, whose work concentrated on developing a CBD-dominant, low-THC cannabis strain.

The beauty of such strains is that they have very limited psychoactive effects, if any at all, and can therefore be used by more vulnerable age groups (i.e. children) with more confidence. Preclinical research indicates that CBD-dominant marijuana can provide a calming, relaxing effect, without impacting the user’s cognitive functions.

Charlotte’s parents made the move to try CBD treatment when their daughter was experiencing 300 grand mal seizures every week. Incredibly, after administering the oil to her medicating program, Charlotte’s seizures disappeared completely for a whole week. The Figis couldn’t quite believe it.

Her mother, Paige, spoke of how Charlotte went quiet for six months before being given CBD – no laughter, no speaking, just crying. She believes that without the medical marijuana treatment, it wouldn’t be possible for Charlotte to make the progress that she has done.

Since Weed was broadcast in 2013, CBD has only grown in popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere. Families with ill children in other states even relocated to Colorado to get the required medical cannabis medication – these families are sometimes referred to as “medical marijuana refugees.”

The Figi family set the tone for change, and the pressure that has followed has led to a slew of medical marijuana legislation and CBD legislation being enacted in other states, both blue and red. Nowadays, any decent medical marijuana dispensary stocks CBD-dominant strains.

CBD and THC – the differences

We know that CBD is non-intoxicating and that THC is psychoactive, but what other differences are there between the two cannabinoids? Despite both being unique to the marijuana plant, they react differently in the body. THC interacts relatively simply, binding to the CB1 receptor, which is mostly found in the central nervous system.

CBD’s interactions are more complex, but were succinctly explained by Dr. Ethan Russo, a medical researcher and neurologist, when he was interviewed by Project CBD.

Russo says that THC binds directly to the orthosteric site on the cannabinoid receptor, whereas CBD binds on the allosteric site. Therefore, both cannabinoids can be attached to the same receptor – when CBD links with a CB1 receptor already binded to THC and endocannabinoids, it influences the overall reaction.

The combined, CBD-THC-CB1 reaction maybe explains why CBD can control the psychoactivity caused by the THC. Some people get anxious after consuming marijuana. This could perhaps be explained by too much THC and not enough CBD to counteract it. If you’re in this situation, maybe consume a CBD edible to help restore balance.

Furthermore, when CBD interacts with a cannabinoid receptor, this influences how endocannabinoids react with the same receptors. Many believe this alters “endocannabinoid tone,” and that these subtle adjustments could be advantageous in treating some medical conditions.

Russo argued in a 2008 piece that some people suffer with “endocannabinoid deficiency”, and that this could be responsible for certain ailments, such as fibromyalgia, migraines and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If this is the case, it would make sense that marijuana could be an effective treatment, as it would replenish the body with the compounds it lacks.

More on CBD’s internal reactions

The science surrounding CBD is fast-moving, and our knowledge of the compound and its interactions is improving with every passing month. We are now aware that CBD’s reactions in the body go way beyond simply engaging with cannabinoid receptors. CBD is known to influence adenosine receptors, which control the sleep-wake cycle, vanilloid receptors, which help to modulate pain and serotonin receptors, which are responsible for managing mood and stress.

Studies on rodents indicate that CBD inhibits fatty-acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). FAAH is an enzyme which breaks down the endocannabinoid anandamide. Therefore, if CBD helps to protect anandamide, it has something of a double medical effect.

Ananadmide is an extremely important endocannabinoid, known either as human THC or the “bliss molecule.” It regulates pain perception, memory, appetite, pleasure and reward, ovulation, sleep patterns and more variables.

The full theory is much more complex, but in short, it states that if CBD stops the breakdown of anandamide, as we have seen in rodents, then the levels of anandamide in the body will be higher, and that this would promote a better endocannabinoid tone.

But a study from 2015 published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry contradicts the assumptions being made about CBD, FAAH and anandamide, concluding that CBD does not stifle FAAH in humans, as it does in rodents. Instead, the study claims that CBD works with proteins that facilitate the bond between anandamide and FAAH, and that CBD doesn’t interact directly with FAAH. But while the intricate details may not yet be known, it’s undeniable that CBD brings about an increase in anandamide levels.

What ailments can CBD treat?

Once you’ve heard about the mental and physical ailments that CBD and treat, you will scarcely be able to believe that the compound – and the plant it comes from – remains prohibited by the federal government. It’s perfectly feasible, and perhaps even likely, that CBD will be one of the most crucial and useful medicines known to man.

A polypharmacological compound, CBD affects many pathways in the body, and the number of interactions make it tricky to confidently study. We aren’t sure how the various interactions work, and the shortage of human trials hasn’t helped our understanding. What we do have, however, is a wealth of anecdotal stories from people who are successfully treating their conditions with CBD.

CBD is used to treat the following and much more: chronic pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, anxiety, lupus, diabetes, nicotine addiction, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Now let’s go in-depth on three conditions being treated with CBD.

1) Schizophrenia and psychosis

Marijuana has often been accused of causing schizophrenia and psychosis, but ironically, the herb may be useful in treating both conditions – we know for sure that CBD is an anti-psychotic compound. In 2015, a review was published explaining how CBD could limit THC’s psychoactive effects.

The parts of the brain affected by THC are the same parts related to schizophrenia – the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The 2015 review proposes that the opposite effects of CBD and THC could help with future schizophrenia research.

CBD has already been trialled as a potential medication for schizophrenia, alongside existing, approved medication. The results were positive, and cannabidiol’s anti-inflammatory properties may explain the molecule’s anti-psychotic qualities. Research has made a connection between heightened brain inflammation and psychosis

2) Epilepsy

We’ve already spoken about how CBD can be used to medicate severe epilepsy by influencing the endocannabinoid system with the story of Charlotte Figi. In the United Kingdom, GW Pharmaceuticals has developed a CBD medication named Epidiolex, which is proving successful in trials.

Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome patients could be the biggest beneficiaries from approved CBD medication. When not used as a stand-alone treatment, CBD has been shown to boost the effectiveness of anti-epileptic drugs – the compound also has neuroprotective qualities.

3) Anxiety

Another condition once thought to be worsened by cannabis, CBD has anxiolytic qualities which make it a worthy anxiety medication. Marijuana-induced anxiety is caused by too much THC and a lack of CBD. Therefore, if you want to treat anxiety with cannabis, you’ll need either a CBD-dominant strain, or a CBD product full stop.

For those who want to enjoy the medical benefits of marijuana but not experience psychoactive side effects, CBD is the perfect solution.

Social anxiety is a growing issue, especially among younger demographics, and 2011 research found that CBD could help users to improve their sociability and make them more comfortable in social situations.

The study tested 10 participants who weren’t receiving medication for anxiety with a double-blind experiment, administering either 400mg of CBD or a placebo. Participants who had taken CBD performed better at managing their anxiety than those given a placebo.

CBD and whole-plant medicine

Isolated from the rest of the plant, CBD is still a wonderfully therapeutic cannabinoid, but it is at its most effective when combined with other cannabinoids and terpenes as whole-plant medicine.

Whole-plant medicine advocates argue talk about the “entourage effect,” a theory that cannabinoids such as CBD and THC are at their most effective when both are administered with each other, as they work together in synergy. This enhances the therapeutic qualities of both compounds. Some epileptic patients fare better on CBD treatment, whereas others respond more positively to THC. This may be explained by the entourage effect.

Indeed, whole-plant medicine and entourage effect theories have brought about significant medical exceptions. In the UK, a drug called Sativex, produced by GW Pharmaceuticals can be prescribed as treatment for Multiple Sclerosis. Sativex contains equal amounts of THC and CBD. THC is permitted in this scenario, since CBD and THC is better at tackling MS symptoms than CBD on its own.

CBD-rich strains

Ready to start consuming CBD via CBD-dominant strains? Whether you’re vaping, smoking, consuming sublingual extracts, edibles or any other CBD-rich product, it’s vital that you’re using a top-quality strain.

Charlotte’s Web, named after Charlotte Figi, is a favorite, but Cannatonic, Harlequin, ACDC and Sour Tsunami are also excellent choices.

CBD-dominant strains aren’t necessarily THC-free, although strains such as Charlotte’s Web contain such low levels of the psychoactive high that the chances of getting high are minimal. If you are concerned about psychoactive effects, consult your budtender or supplier about the strain you’re hoping to purchase – they may be able to provide lab-test results confirming the concentrations of CBD and THC.

Where else can you obtain CBD?

CBD doesn’t just come from marijuana. It’s also available to purchase in specialized CBD oils, coconut oil and capsules.

Understanding CBD’s legal status

Countries have different approaches to CBD. The United Kingdom is near the forefront of CBD acceptance, with the National Health Service, Britain’s state-run healthcare system, recently confirming that the compound had medicinal properties. The UK hasn’t, however, legalized the cannabis plant itself.

The United States has much more complicated CBD laws, with discrepancies between states and the federal government, in addition to differences depending on where the CBD was sourced. CBD products are either sourced from marijuana or industrial hemp. While the CBD itself is the same, legally, it is not.

The Controlled Substances Act classifies the marijuana plant and all of its derivatives as Schedule I substances – this includes marijuana-derived CBD. Schedule I substances are deemed to have no medicinal value and possession of them can result in criminal prosecution. A recent ruling from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) confirmed that CBD products fit the definition of “cannabis extracts”.

However, despite the DEA’s stance, hemp industry experts have debated whether the agency has the right to categorize CBD under the marijuana umbrella. The courts have also debated this issue in the past.

A case in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 ruled in favor of industrial hemp. The DEA had set an “Interpretive Rule,” declaring that “any product that contains any amount of THC” would count as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.

Now, the DEA is back with a new ruling that appears to be in direct contradiction to an Agricultural Act of 2014 (Farm Bill) amendment. The Farm Bill, which passed under the Obama administration, federally legalized industrial hemp production, providing it was cultivated in state-managed programs. These programs would enable a limited number of cultivators to grow, manufacture and sell hemp-based products.

The Farm Bill’s definition of a hemp plant is a cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent THC. It is not yet apparent how the DEA’s new stance conflicts with the 2014 Farm Bill.

Final thoughts

While marijuana remains federally prohibited, it is going to be nigh on impossible for sufficient research to take place and for patients to get access to products that could make their lives easier.

We’ve had a glimpse at the medicinal possibilities of CBD, THC, other cannabinoids and the marijuana plant as a whole – now more comprehensive research is required for us to fully recognize and capitalize on its therapeutic potential.


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