CBD is a Phytocannabinoid: One of Many

CBD? Let’s clear the air.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is just one phytocannabinoid of over 80, and researchers are uncovering more phytocannabinoids all the time. CBD is everywhere (CBD beers and kombuchas, CBD for dogs, CBD gum, you name it), but do you have an accurate understanding of what it really is? 

I’ll just tell you right now – apologies for any bubbles burst – that your local brewery serving up a “CBD ale” has not found some sneaky way around recreational marijuana laws (if you don’t live in one of the 11 states or Washington, D.C. where recreational marijuana is legal). The CBD in your beer is not going to get you high; at most, you might benefit from the positive effect all cannabinoids have on the body. But those benefits aren’t exactly unique to CBD. CBD is just the phytocannabinoid that found its way into the spotlight of the hemp and cannabis industry, which is valued at more than $10 billion in the United States.

Phytocannabinoids like CBD are just one piece of the puzzle that is the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This is a system of the body not unlike the systems you learned in school: immune, digestive, cardiovascular. But for whatever reason (conspiracists cite the government and its misunderstanding of the cannabis plant and its products), the ECS was not taught in school like the other systems were.

The ECS is named for the puzzle pieces found naturally in the human body: endocannabinoids (endo = internal/within; cannabinoid = active constituent of cannabis). Endocannabinoids bind cannabinoid receptors, which are also found naturally in the human body. Anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) are two widely known endocannabinoids.

If the ECS is a puzzle, the cannabinoid receptors are the corner pieces; they provide a foundation for ECS-regulated activity in the human body, whether it’s a “high” produced by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC; another phytocannabinoid) or anti-anxiety effects elicited by CBD (this claim requires further support from reliable clinical trials and randomized studies). There are two cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. These two cannabinoid receptors are complex and multifaceted, but for simplicity’s sake, you can associate CB1 with the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord) and CB2 with the immune system. When a cannabinoid binds a cannabinoid receptor, stuff happens. 

Discussing the external components of the ECS is where things get a little tricky. Phytocannabinoids (phyto = plant; cannabinoid = active constituent of cannabis), including THC and CBD, are found most densely in the cannabis plant and associated products, like hemp and marijuana. It’s difficult to study phytocannabinoids because of the legal status of cannabis (another story for another day, but this is a good reference for legal status). It’s legal here, but not there. It’s legal for this reason, but not for that reason. It’s legal in this form, but not this form. It’s not surprising that we don’t know as much about cannabis and the endocannabinoid system as is needed to support health claims; it’s much easier to study ingredients with less baggage.

There’s a lot more to the story when it comes to cannabis and the ECS that I want to cover. But today, I wanted to start by describing CBD for what it is: one phytocannabinoid, one puzzle piece. The ECS is the puzzle, and it’s not finished yet. 

Other topics I want to explore in the near future:

  • Non-cannabis sources of phytocannabinoids, like carrots
  • The connection between polyunsaturated fatty acids and the ECS
  • Legal status of cannabis: marijuana versus hemp; recreational versus medical

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