Cannabinoids 101

From CBD to THC and everything in between, we spoke with a doctor and a registered dietician to find out everything there is to know about cannabinoids and their future as medicinal compounds.
Written by Jeannine Morris Lombardi
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Cannabinoids 101Kimzy Nanney/Unsplash

It’s no surprise that new research shows cannabidiol (CBD) is the most-searched wellness trend with some 500,000 Google scholarly articles and more than eight million Instagram posts about the compound. Today, we’re learning that the therapeutic benefits of CBD are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are many more cannabinoids to be explored.

“With current interest in CBD, we have a renewed interest in plant-based medicine,” says David Bearman, MD, executive vice president of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine and coauthor of Cannabis Medicine: A Guide to the Practice of Cannabinoid Medicine. “Before World War II, about 95 percent of all prescriptions were compounded (specifically made for you) and not manufactured. Today, it’s the other way around — we’re making more synthetic and semi-synthetic medications. This interest is making us go back and take a look.”

To better understand the current and future uses of cannabinoids in the beauty, wellness, and medical industries, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the cannabis-derived compounds.

[Editor’s Note: Cannabinoid use is not regulated by the FDA, and it is recommended to speak with your healthcare provider before adding them to your regimen.]

What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in the flowers and stems of the Cannabis sativa plant (a.k.a. hemp). While researchers are only on the cusp of finding out how many there really are, the plant has over 500 different molecules and at least 140 of them are cannabinoids.

With CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being the most popular, cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabichromene (CBC) are beginning to stand out for their medicinal benefits as well. “The chemical structures of the compounds are very similar, so it’s not surprising they have overlapping therapeutic effects,” Dr. Bearman explains. “While you’ll begin to see these as ingredients being called out on product labels, know that if you have a full-spectrum product, you’re already reaping their benefits.”

What Are the Benefits of Cannabinoids?

The benefits of cannabinoids like CBD seem endless, but a lack of clinical research and FDA approval on products challenges claims. Evidence suggests cannabinoids can relieve pain, help with weight loss, improve sleep, and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to reducing inflammation, anxiety, and depression. Medicinal use is also linked to killing cancer cells, controlling nausea caused by chemotherapy, regulating seizures, treating autism, and relieving the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

How Do Cannabinoids Work?

Cannabinoids work with your endocannabinoid system (ECS) — arguably the largest neurotransmitter system in your body — to help it maintain homeostasis (read: balance) by stimulating or blocking the CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are most commonly found in the central nervous system and act as moderators for your mood, function, perception of pain and memory. CB2 receptors, meanwhile, are found on immune system cells and focus on moderating inflammation.

Do Cannabinoids Make You High?

When it comes to mass-market cannabinoid products like skincare, topicals, and ingestibles, the short answer is no. There are governmental limits on the use of THC, which is the naturally occurring chemical compound known for producing the psychoactive effect that marijuana is known for.

“Most people associate cannabis products with getting stoned,” says Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Daily Habit CBD. “But when it comes to industrial hemp, the federal law is that products have to have below 0.3 percent of THC in them.” As a matter of fact, THC in that small dose makes other cannabinoids more impactful. Even though this limit is put in place on a federal level, CBD isn’t legal in every state, so it remains a state-by-state mandate.

What to Look For in Cannabinoid Products

Given the lack of oversight and regulation, it should come as no surprise that it is important to do a bit of research before clicking ‘add to cart’ on the cannabinoid product you’ve been eyeing. Some of the information you will want to confirm may be on a brand’s website instead of the product label, and Alpert says there are three things you should look for to ensure you’re purchasing an effective cannabinoid product.

1. Full Spectrum

“Many cannabinoids have therapeutic values, and the combination of using them together is more effective than using a single cannabinoid alone,” Dr. Bearman says. Full-spectrum products contain over 400 compounds that act synergistically to create an “entourage effect” where the chemicals all support one another and increase efficacy. While there are some health benefits when an isolate like CBD is extracted and used alone, they’re considered inferior to full-spectrum products when it comes to delivering impactful results. “Coming from a dietician, I like to look at this like vitamin C,” Alpert explains. “It’s great if it’s extracted. But if you eat a whole orange, you get vitamin C, antioxidants, fiber, and everything else.”

2. Organically Grown, USA Hemp

The soil the product is grown in can make all of the difference in how it performs. Each country has their own regulation for what ‘organically grown’ means. Since hemp is a bioaccumulator (i.e. it sucks toxins from the soil), it’s often used to clean soil from toxic spills. As a result, you want to make sure it’s grown in safe, healthy soil.

3. Third-Party Testing

You can normally find a certificate of analysis (COA) on a company’s website. “Even if you can read what these tests mean, it’s important to know that they’re offering them,” Alpert explains. The more transparent a company in this industry is, the better.

The Future of Cannabinoids

For starters, research, research, and more research. “We’ve really dropped the ball in this country when it comes to studying the potential benefits of this plant,” Dr. Bearman says. Many of the current studies tend to focus on learning more about the adverse effects rather than the benefits. “When it comes to future research, it needs to be unbiased,” he says. “State and federal research money needs to be used to find out how these molecules affect the brain.”

The industry also needs regulating. “I make my own cannabis products, and I want regulations,” Alpert admits. Just like the beauty and wellness industries, having strict regulations to follow would help to cut through the current clutter and ensure consumers have access to high-quality products.

On the medicinal front, Dr. Bearman hopes more education becomes available to those who are pursuing a career in healthcare. “Medical schools should include a course or courses on cannabis, cannabinoids, and the ECS in their core curriculum and add questions in the National Medical Board Exam on the topic,” he says, adding it will motivate medical students to feel more confident in exploring the option of using cannabis to help treat any number of mental and physical conditions.

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JEANNINE MORRIS LOMBARDIis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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