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The complete guide to CBD (cannabidiol)

November 25, 2019
Guide to CBD and CBD products
(Rizza San Agustin/Leafly)

CBD (cannabidiol) is a therapeutic compound produced by cannabis. It is commonly extracted and processed into oils, gummies, topicals, and other products that have no doubt sparked your curiosity. And with curiosity comes a load of questions. 

This guide is here to lend a hand and provide answers to consumers’ most common questions about CBD, starting with the most basic so you never feel lost. You can start from the beginning or jump straight to whichever CBD question is currently burning hottest for you.

Common CBD questions

What is CBD (cannabidiol)?

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis and hemp. CBD oils, gummies, and other products are continuing to grow in popularity as ways to manage anxiety, stress, pain, and other symptoms.

We typically associate cannabis with getting stoned, but CBD can be extracted from the plant to make products that come without the high or the smoke.

We typically associate cannabis with getting stoned, but CBD can be extracted from the plant to make products that come without the high or the smoke. The molecule in cannabis that gets us high is called THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), and nowadays, you can turn to cannabis-derived CBD products with little to no THC for clear-headed symptom relief.

It’s not just THC and CBD, either—cannabis produces dozens of potentially therapeutic compounds called cannabinoids. We’re slowly getting to know them as legalization spreads, and so far, they seem pretty friendly to us humans and our many ailments.

How does CBD work in the brain and body?

Each of our bodies has a set of receptors that interacts with cannabis compounds called cannabinoids, like CBD. These receptors, found throughout the body, comprise the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex signaling system that ensures our bodies maintain homeostasis. 

Put another way, the endocannabinoid system keeps us in balance by directing the communication traffic in our bodies. Cannabinoids such as CBD interact with this system, mimicking natural compounds (called endocannabinoids) produced by the body.

Related

How to stimulate the endocannabinoid system without cannabis

In the human body, CBD influences cannabinoid receptor activity and encourages production of the body’s natural endocannabinoids. Interestingly, CBD also affects activity beyond the endocannabinoid system and can also interact with  opioid, dopamine, and serotonin receptors. The ability of CBD to interact with so many different systems throughout the body suggests it has the potential to open new frontiers in psychiatry and medicine.

Learn more about the effects of CBD on the brain and body.

Can CBD make you feel high?

can CBD make you feel high

(Rizza San Agustin/Leafly)

Unlike THC, CBD is not intoxicating. Why? Both THC and CBD are cannabinoids, but they behave very differently in our bodies. 

THC stimulates what are called CB1 receptors. When CB1 receptors are activated, humans generally experience feelings of euphoria—or, for some, anxiety and paranoia. CBD doesn’t activate CB1 receptors, so we don’t feel euphoric, anxious, or stoned when taking it. 

In fact, CBD can actually reduce THC’s ability to stimulate CB1 receptors, helping to block some of THC’s not-so-fun side effects. For those prone to anxiety and forgetfulness when consuming cannabis, CBD is a good tool to keep on-hand.

Learn more about why CBD is non-intoxicating here.

What are some conditions CBD can potentially treat?

CBD is a compound with diverse medical potential, so it’s no surprise that it’s become a trendy “cure-all” in the wellness space of late. Considering there’s currently no supervision over ingredients in CBD oil and other products, or the medical claims tied to them, it’s OK to be skeptical. We encourage that.

These claims often begin with anecdotal evidence, early research, and animal studies, but human studies are finally starting to fill in the gaps around CBD’s touted benefits. With that caveat in mind, here’s what we understand about CBD’s potential therapeutic applications.

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6 common myths and controversies about high-CBD cannabis

CBD and anxiety

Ask around and we don’t doubt you’ll find a friend, relative, or acquaintance who swears by CBD for anxiety and stress relief. And there’s no reason yet to doubt it; so far, a majority of CBD research suggests it may be beneficial for anxiety symptoms, possibly by influencing activity in the serotonin system

For quick relief of acute stress and anxiety, consider vaporizing high-CBD strains that also contain an array of botanical compounds—or try a clean, lab-tested CBD oil. Ingesting CBD oil may also help alleviate anxiety on the fly, but the effects are not instantaneous.

Learn more about CBD for anxiety here.

CBD and pain

According to research so far, CBD seems to help with two types of pain: neuropathic and inflammatory.

According to research so far, CBD seems to help with two types of pain: neuropathic and inflammatory. For other types of pain, CBD appears to be less effective. The euphoria-causing cannabinoid THC appears to also lend pain-relieving benefits, so if that’s your use-case, you might consider a product with both CBD and THC. You may even consider starting with a low dose of THC (2.5 to 5mg)—one likely to deliver little to no detectable high—to see if it enhances the painkilling power of CBD.

Not only can cannabis help supplement and replace a regimen of opioid painkillers, cannabis appears to enhance the effects of opioids, allowing some patients to cut back their regular dose of pharmaceutical painkillers.

Learn more about CBD for pain here.

CBD and insomnia

The relationship between CBD and sleep isn’t well understood yet. So far, it appears that dosage plays a role, with higher doses appearing to be more effective than lower doses. For context, one study indicated that a 160mg dose of CBD correlated with longer sleep duration, while 25mg of CBD seemed to have no effect on insomnia symptoms.

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PTSD, insomnia, and cannabis: What’s the evidence say?

Another consideration: What’s keeping you up at night? CBD may help with symptoms that cause sleeplessness. If pain, anxiety, or stress is keeping you from settling into sleep, CBD just might be your ticket to a peaceful mind and body—and restful sleep.

Learn more about CBD for insomnia here.

CBD and epileptic seizures

For children with epilepsy, many treatment options drag along a host of side effects that impact one’s quality of life. So when CBD began to show promise as an effective treatment for seizures with little in the way adverse effects, researchers started paying attention. 

In 2018, the FDA approved a CBD-based medicine called Epidiolex for treating two forms of epilepsy—Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

Although anecdotal evidence and early studies show promising results, researchers haven’t yet reached a scientific explanation for why CBD might help reduce seizures.

Learn more about CBD for epilepsy here.

Does CBD show up on drug tests?

When taking a drug test, you are not being screened for CBD. But you can still fail a drug test by only using CBD products. That’s because drug tests screen for THC, and many CBD products have trace levels of THC. 

Even full-spectrum CBD oils derived from hemp can test up to 0.3% THC. That’s not enough to get you high, and you’d likely have to ingest a lot of CBD oil to fail a drug test for THC. But it’s worth knowing that the risk is technically there.

Does that mean you have to avoid CBD forever? Thankfully, nope. Look for broad-spectrum CBD oils or CBD isolates—these two product types have THC stripped out, but maintain the presence of other cannabinoids and compounds found in the plant.

Learn more about CBD in drug testing here.

Is CBD illegal?

Since 1937, cannabis has been federally illegal. So was hemp until the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. Also called the farm bill, this law removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act. 

Each state in the US has its own laws pertaining to hemp and CBD.

Both hemp and high-resin cannabis produce CBD, but they have different definitions by law. Legally speaking, hemp and hemp products contain less than 0.3% THC. (Further explore the differences between hemp and cannabis below.)

So CBD is legal as long as it’s derived from hemp, right? Possibly. But not always.

Each state in the US has its own laws pertaining to hemp and CBD. For example, CBD in all forms is still illegal in Idaho, Iowa, and South Dakota. In Alaska, California, Washington, and many other states, only licensed cannabis shops can sell CBD in food or beverage forms. Check Leafly’s state-by-state guide to CBD to learn more about your local restrictions.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently drafting regulatory guidelines for CBD products—the first draft is expected to arrive in early 2020. Until then, agency officials are reminding everyone that it’s illegal to add CBD to a food or to label CBD as a dietary supplement.

Learn more about the legality of CBD here.

What’s the difference between hemp CBD and cannabis-derived CBD?

CBD is produced by both hemp and cannabis. The molecule itself is the same regardless of its source plant, but there are still important differences between hemp- and cannabis-derived CBD products.

Hemp CBD pros and cons

(Rizza San Agustin/Leafly)

When talking about hemp, we’re referring to the low-resin industrial crop commonly used to make clothing, textiles, food, and other materials. And in this context, we’re using the word cannabis to describe the high-resin plants that are grown specifically for medical consumption or enjoyment.

Is one source better than the other? Here’s a glance at the pros and cons of each.

Hemp-derived CBD:

  • Pro: Hemp is legal federally in the US (but check your local laws to ensure it’s legal in your state), and hemp-derived CBD products are widely available for purchase online and in grocery and drug stores.
  • Pro: Hemp produces only trace levels of THC, making it appealing for consumers wanting to avoid THC altogether.
  • Con: Hemp readily absorbs soil contaminants in a process called bioaccumulation, and those contaminants can stick around in processed products. Always purchase products that have been tested by a third party.
  • Con: Hemp produces a limited spectrum of therapeutic compounds compared to high-resin cannabis. 
  • Con: Hemp products are currently unregulated, leaving unreliable potencies, dubious claims, and questionable ingredients unchecked.
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Cannabis-derived CBD:

  • Pro: Cannabis produces a wider spectrum of therapeutic compounds (and in greater abundance) compared to hemp. 
  • Pro: Cannabis-derived CBD products are strictly regulated and tested per state laws.
  • Con: Cannabis-derived CBD is only available in states with legal cannabis, making it unavailable to consumers outside legal states.

Learn more about the difference between hemp- and cannabis-derived CBD here.

What’s the right dose of CBD?

Your perfect CBD dose depends on a few different factors, including your individual biology, the delivery method, and the specific nature of your symptoms.

There is no ideal, one-size-fits-all dose with CBD. Your perfect CBD dose depends on a few different factors, including your individual biology, the delivery method, and the specific nature of your symptoms. For example, high doses of CBD (upward of 600mg daily) seem to be more effective for conditions like epilepsy, whereas low doses are potentially effective for anxiety.

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A physician’s perspective on optimal cannabis dosing

Research is beginning to show that there’s a sweet spot when it comes to dosing cannabinoids like CBD: Consume too much or too little, and you may feel limited relief or side effects. 

More research is needed to develop specific guidelines around CBD dosing for different medical conditions. Until then—if you’re using CBD oils, edibles, or other products to treat symptoms like anxiety, stress, pain, or insomnia—consider starting with a low dose of CBD (around 5mg) and slowly increasing until you’ve found the optimal dose for you.

Learn more about CBD dosing here.

How do I take CBD oil and other products?

CBD oils and CBD products

(Rizza San Agustin/Leafly)

CBD comes in many different forms—you can smoke it, swallow it as an oil, vaporize it, or apply it as a lotion. With so many options, it’s easy for anyone to fit CBD into their lifestyle. 

But even though all these products deliver CBD, they don’t all work in the same way. Some delivery methods are more suited to different conditions, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with every available option.

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Creating the perfect CBD dose: It’s harder than you might think

CBD oil

CBD oil is an umbrella term for many different products. It’s most commonly found as a liquid extract in bottles with a dropper built into the lid—also called tinctures. CBD oil can be dropped under the tongue for fast absorption or mixed directly into food or drinks. 

CBD oil may also come in a gelcap that you swallow like a supplement, with effects that take a bit longer to kick in. CBD oils are commonly used for a wide variety of symptoms including pain, anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness.

Learn more about CBD oil here.

CBD edibles

CBD edibles describe food and beverages that are infused with CBD oil or isolate. Infused gummies and chews are the most commonly found food items, while CBD sodas and water dominate the beverage space. Because they can be long-lasting in effect, CBD edibles are most popular among people managing pain, inflammation, and stress.

It’s worth noting that Leafly’s CBD potency investigation found that CBD gummies were the most reliable form when it comes to delivering the advertised dose. CBD-infused waters, meanwhile, were the least reliable, with three out of four products testing at 0% CBD. 

Learn more about CBD edibles here.

CBD topicals and lotions

CBD topicals are products you can spread on the skin for localized relief of pain, inflammation, soreness, and potentially headaches. Lotions, balms, gels, sprays, oils, creams, lubes … CBD topicals come in many forms. Some absorb faster (water-based), and others absorb more deeply (oil-based). 

Along with CBD, you’ll also frequently find ingredients like menthol, capsaicin, cayenne, camphor, or anti-inflammatory cannabinoids like THCA in CBD topicals. If you have a cannabis-free topical you already enjoy, consider finding a CBD topical with similar ingredients.

Learn more about CBD topicals here.

CBD vapes

CBD vapes refer to pre-filled CBD oil cartridges that attach to vape batteries or CBD “juice,” which is intended for use with e-cigarettes. Vaporized CBD can deliver fast-acting effects, making this delivery method great for those in need of quick relief from symptoms like anxiety and stress.

Only CBD vapes sold in legal cannabis stores undergo mandated testing. CBD vapor products sold online or in smoke shops, gas stations, or other non-licensed shops are not currently held to the same strict regulations. It’s vitally important to be aware of the ingredients and additives in these vaping oils. 

If you’re concerned about the ingredients in CBD oils, consider herbal vaporizers. These devices allow you to enjoy pure CBD flower—find some grown locally, organically, and without pesticides for a reliably clean product. If you live in a state with legal cannabis, we recommend finding a high-CBD strain at your local cannabis shop, but smokable hemp flowers containing CBD can also be found at a few online retailers. Read more on high-CBD flowers in the section below.

Learn more about CBD here.

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What cannabis strains are high in CBD?

Although most cannabis strains have been bred to contain high levels of THC, there’s a growing pool of high-CBD strains available for consumers looking for a gentle high or a high-free experience. These strains look a lot like high-THC strains with a few subtle differences—they’re often less resinous with less pronounced aromas.

 There are two primary types of CBD strains:

  • CBD-dominant strains contain high levels of CBD and low levels of THC, which typically result in almost no high when consumed. Look for strains like ACDC, Sour Tsunami, Remedy, and Harle-Tsu.
  • Balanced CBD/THC strains contain near-equal levels of both CBD and THC, and deliver a mild high when consumed. Look for strains like Harlequin, Pennywise, MediHaze, and Canna-Tsu.

Check your local cannabis shop to see which high-CBD strains they have in stock. Once you’ve purchased a high-CBD strain, you can smoke it, vaporize it, or use it to make infused oil. Always buy lab-tested products to ensure that the product you’ve selected actually contains the amount of THC and CBD you’re looking for.

Learn more about high-CBD strains here.

Is CBD safe for pets?

CBD safe for pets

(Rizza San Agustin/Leafly)

Just as humans can benefit from CBD’s benefits, so might your furry best friend. Between anecdotal evidence and early research, we’re starting to understand CBD’s potential in treating symptoms and conditions like seizures, arthritis, and anxiety in animals, but more peer-reviewed clinical research is needed to fully understand the safety, efficacy, and optimal dosages and delivery methods associated with CBD for pets. We also need more data to understand how these medicines work in cats compared to dogs, given their biological differences. 

Veterinarians can’t currently prescribe or recommend CBD for pets, so it’s important that you thoroughly research a CBD product before giving it to an animal in your care. 

Read more about CBD for pets here

Bailey Rahn's Bio Image

Bailey Rahn

Bailey is a senior content manager at Leafly, specializing in strains and health. She's spent 7+ years researching cannabis products, spreading patients’ stories, and exploring healthy ways of integrating cannabis into daily life.

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  • Thank you for covering pets 🙂 Spot on about how, at this current time, veterinarians are not able to prescribe, recommend, or guide a pet parent without the risk of serious consequences.

    Pet parents that have questions about hemp (CBD) or cannabis, should truly work with a cannabis professional that is certified in veterinary cannabis. These professionals are the liaison between a pet parent and their primary veterinarian, providing product selection and dosing based on the pet’s current medical history and the overall goal (pain management, anxiety, seizures, etc).

  • Artem Kotliarov

    Nice info, thanks for sharing!

  • There is growing evidence CBD is not the safe panacea it is being promoted to be by scientists and researchers. Indeed, it has become a popular “fad” based on a paucity of evidence based research. The FDA issued recent warnings that CBD should not be considered safe! CBD has been linked to liver and testicular damage and can demonstrate adverse effects when combined with alcohol or prescription medications.
    As a physician, I evaluated a woman who used a CBD sublingual tincture to treat anxiety derived from an FDA analyzed hemp source with reliable CBD content. Additionally, she was prescribed a beta blocker medication for blood pressure control. She reported becoming very lethargic and unpleasantly sedated and that the effect lasted all day and made her feel “drained”.
    CBD has been FDA approved for only one use – as an adjunct for the control of severe seizure disorders. The range of clinical diagnoses it is being used for include medical conditions for which there is no evidence based research to support its effectiveness.
    I have long been a proponent of the topical use of CBD, as a transdermal and sublingual tincture. As a medical research scientist and patient, it is clear to me the time has come to step back and allow epidemiological data to accrue on the true impacts of the range of CBD products now that we have large populations of people using these products.

  • Estelle Walker

    Have you ever felt sick to your stomach after taking CBD oil?