CBD, short for cannabidiol, is derived from the cannabis plant and is one of many active chemical compounds found in cannabis.

What is CBD? The Cannabinoid Confusion Cleared Up

By Kristi Pahr

 Over the last few years, CBD has been on everyone’s minds and in almost everyone’s medicine cabinets. It can be found everywhere from your neighborhood Walgreens to fancy, upscale boutiques. But despite its popularity, it’s still a little mysterious. The fact that it’s derived from the cannabis plant, which was vilified for much of the 20th century, lends to that air of mystery. And many people who use it, or who are interested in using it, may not know what this popular supplement even is. Let’s clear up the confusion. 

Is CBD the Same as Marijuana?

CBD, which stands for cannabidiol, is derived from the cannabis plant. It is one of many active chemical compounds, called phytocannabinoids, found in cannabis. CBD and its cousin, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects, are arguably the most well-known phytocannabinoids, but there are dozens of others present in cannabis. 

Phytocannabinoids are responsible for giving the cannabis plant its therapeutic and psychoactive properties, but only one, THC, causes a high. Cannabis that contains THC is generally referred to as marijuana, while cannabis that does not contain THC or contains THC in negligible quantities is called hemp. CBD is present in both marijuana and hemp and can be extracted from either. 

What Do Cannabinoids Do?

CBD can assist with regulating homeostasis, including mood, sleep, and immunity.

All mammals have a system of receptors within their bodies that specifically interact with cannabinoids — the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Some cannabinoids we produce ourselves, inside our bodies —  endocannabinoids — and some, like CBD and THC, are derived from plants–phytocannabinoids. 

The ECS is responsible for helping the body maintain homeostasis by regulating a number of vital functions like sleep, appetite, memory, immune response, and inflammation. The ECS triggers a release of endocannabinoids when it senses that something is out of whack and, when ingested, phytocannabinoids, like CBD, mimic endocannabinoids and provide similar effects.

When cannabinoids are consumed, they bind to endocannabinoid receptors throughout our bodies and brains. Depending on the type of receptor (CB1 or CB2) and the type of cannabinoid, it can provide relief from many conditions.

What the Research Says

Research into cannabinoids has picked up steam in the 21st century. With the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the mid-1980s, scientists realized that the therapeutic value of the cannabis plant had been overlooked by the medical community. Because of the plant’s designation as a schedule 1 controlled substance, access to the plant to perform research was limited. But as prohibition lifted in various states over the last decade, it is now easier than ever for scientists to study cannabis — and what they’re learning is remarkable. 

Evidence shows that cannabinoids provide effective, safe, low-to-no side-effect remedies for conditions that run the gamut: Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and multiple sclerosis, just to name a few. As one study states, “In view of the very low toxicity and the generally benign side effects of this group of compounds, neglecting or denying their clinical potential is unacceptable.” 

As interest in cannabinoid therapies continues to rise and funding for their research increases, we may expect to see a more clear picture of the therapeutic value of these compounds in managing some of our most prevalent diseases and health conditions.

Common and Emerging Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant is chock full of cannabinoids.CBD and THC are the most well-known, but dozens of others are currently being researched for their potential health-promoting benefits. Cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), and cannabinol (CBN) are just a few of the up and coming cannabinoids that hold promising therapeutic value. 

Ultimately, as more research is conducted and as extraction methods are improved, these little-known cannabinoids could have a big role to play in new and novel medicinal possibilities.


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Kristi Pahr is a freelance health and wellness writer and mother of two who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Men’s Health, and many others.

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