Navigating the world of medical cannabis can be tricky. There’s a lot to learn about the plant itself, different dosage forms, legalities surrounding use and the common lingo. One of the terms you’re likely to come across is ‘full-spectrum CBD oil’ — it’s legitimately become a buzzword.
But, you might wonder how it differs from other forms of CBD oil. Consider this your full-spectrum CBD oil 101: a comprehensive guide to what it is, why it’s different, the benefits and more.
What Is CBD Oil?
Before we delve into full spectrum, let’s take a step back and look at what CBD oil actually is.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is derived from the cannabis plant. Typically it’s derived from hemp-type varieties of the cannabis plant (which are low in THC) rather than what is often termed medical marijuana (containing measurable levels of THC).
When people use the term CBD oil they generally use it as an umbrella term for all types of CBD oils, including full-spectrum. But there are several subcategories, including isolate and broad spectrum oils.
While they’re all CBD oil, each type contains different cannabinoids, has distinct effects and serves a unique purpose for the patient.
What Is Full-Spectrum CBD Oil?
As the name implies, full-spectrum CBD oil contains the full spectrum of cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds found in the cannabis plant. This means that trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are present in a full-spectrum product along with terpenes, fatty acids, minor cannabinoids and other plant matter.
Since full-spectrum CBD oil contains all the compounds found in the plant, the potential for therapeutic use is theorised to be higher. This is because the various compounds are thought to work together through a phenomenon known as the entourage effect.
But while full-spectrum CBD oil contains THC, the amount is so minimal (one to three percent) that the patient is extremely unlikely to experience the ‘high’ associated with THC’s psychotropic properties.
The taste of full-spectrum oil is often described as earthy or grassy and bitter. Many people will mask the taste with honey or other food to overcome this. The colour is dark and can often be closer to brown or green than the true golden colour you are expecting.
Full spectrum is one of three types of CBD oils available in Australia. It’s worth learning about how all three work to better understand what makes full-spectrum oil different and why it’s often touted as being the most therapeutic.
What’s the Difference: Broad-Spectrum and Isolate CBD Oil
Broad-spectrum CBD oil is a full-spectrum product with the THC removed. It still contains the other compounds, including cannabinoids, fatty acids, and terpenes, but additional processing removes all or most of the THC.
Occasionally there will still be some THC that remains in a broad-spectrum CBD oil, but the dose would be so low that many products will not be required to list it on the label. Like full spectrum, broad-spectrum CBD oil has an earthy or grassy taste and is dark and resin-like in colour.
Isolate CBD oil undergoes more processing, this time to leave only CBD with all other compounds removed. Some isolate CBD oils have purities of up to 99 percent. As for the other one percent or more, trace amounts of terpenes, cannabinoids, fatty acids, and plant matter may be left behind.
Unlike full- and broad-spectrum CBD oils, isolate CBD is tasteless and colourless.
How Is Full-Spectrum Oil Extracted?
Since the point of a full-spectrum oil is to retain as many beneficial compounds from the plant as possible, producing it comes with difficulties, and different manufacturers use different processes to maintain the delicate balance in the plant.
In general, extracting CBD requires a combination of pressure, temperature, and solvents to create a concentrated form of CBD and other desirable compounds while leaving out those that are less desirable.
Two of the more common methods are hydrocarbon extraction, which uses butane or a butane-propane blend to extract the CBD and other compounds, and supercritical CO2 extraction, which uses pressurised carbon dioxide (CO2) to pull the desired compounds from the plant.
Is Full-Spectrum CBD Oil Legal?
Full-spectrum CBD oil containing one percent or less of THC is technically legal to buy over the counter in Australia, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find it at your local chemist.
This is due to the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) requirement for sufficient data to be supplied before a product is made available for sale. Conducting the research required for this data is extremely costly and something only very few pharmaceutical companies can afford to do. After all, because this is a plant-extraction they won’t be able to patent it afterwards, something which helps to recoup costs with traditional pharmaceutical research.
This means you will need to go to your doctor to get a prescription for full-spectrum CBD oil, even if the THC content is below one percent.
What Are the Benefits of Full-Spectrum CBD Oil?
Research around CBD oil and its potential benefits is growing quickly, both here and overseas.
Perhaps the most well-studied and cited benefit is a reported calming effect that could help patients with anxiety, depression or insomnia find relief. A 2019 study found that anxiety scores decreased within the first month of using CBD in 79.2 percent of patients and 66.7 percent experienced an improvement in sleep.
Here in Australia, CBD oil is most commonly prescribed for chronic pain, followed by cancer pain and anxiety. The majority of patients prescribed CBD oil are aged 45 and over, meaning there is a likelihood that age-related chronic pain conditions like arthritis are being managed with CBD oil.
A 2021 study published in the Australian Journal of General Practice states, “There are tens of thousands of patients with chronic pain being prescribed medicinal cannabis products in Australia, and hundreds of thousands using illicit cannabis products to self-medicate chronic pain. Many have legitimate lived experience of lasting pain reduction with cannabis that is not easily disregarded.”
Because full-spectrum CBD oil contains CBD along with other cannabinoids, terpenes and compounds, it may be more effective for some conditions, including chronic pain. Your doctor will help you identify whether this may be the case for you.
How To Use Full-Spectrum CBD Oil
Like any CBD oil, full spectrum will likely come in a liquid dropper or capsule form. This is one of the things that makes it appealing — it is very discreet and easy to take.
If your doctor prescribes a liquid oil, you can put drops directly under your tongue to reach the capillary-rich area where the CBD will enter your bloodstream faster. How much you take and when will be dependent on your specific prescription. It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions exactly and start low and go slow if they specify.
If you are prescribed capsules, the number of capsules and times taken per day will be directed by your doctor. Again, there may be a low and slow approach to ensure your body has time to adjust to the new medication.
Side Effects of CBD Oil
Like any medication, CBD oil can cause side effects. Some of the most common side effects include dry mouth, dizziness and fatigue. While most people are able to tolerate CBD oil without experiencing any side-effects, it's important to be aware of the potential risks and to speak with your doctor if you experience any concerning side effects.
CBD oil can also have adverse interactions with other medications, which can increase the risk of side effects or reduce their effectiveness. In particular, CBD oil can interact with medications that are broken down by enzymes in the liver. This is because the same enzymes in the liver that break down medications also break down cannabis compounds. As always, talk to your doctor about any medications you are on before commencing cannabis care.
Special Considerations for Full-Spectrum CBD Oil
Because full-spectrum CBD oil contains trace amounts of THC, there are some special circumstances patients need to be aware of that would not exist with an isolate CBD oil.
Firstly, patients subjected to randomised drug testing at work or with specific drug use policies in their employment contract should be mindful of taking full-spectrum CBD oil. Unfortunately, Australia’s employee rights around medical cannabis use are not yet clear enough to protect patients in these instances, meaning usage could put your job at risk.
Start by reading your employment contract carefully, speaking to your doctor about what it entails, and discussing any politics with your employer or a lawyer before you sign a new agreement or begin taking your prescription. To date, there are no reports of full spectrum CBD oil trigger a failed test, but with your job in question, it’s best to take precautions.
While the THC content in full-spectrum CBD oils is so low it is unlikely to lead to impaired driving, theoretically some sensitive individuals could experience psychoactive effects. Again, there is still a small chance it will appear on a drug test, especially after prolonged use.
How your body processes THC is very individual, and there is no clear timeframe in which it’s safe to assume the drug has passed through your system sufficiently enough to pass a drug test. For these reasons, if you drive for a living or need to drive a lot for another reason, it is always best to avoid a full-spectrum product entirely.
For more on driving and medical cannabis, read this blog.
When discussing a full-spectrum CBD oil prescription with your doctor, it’s important to raise these lifestyle factors and any concerns you have about work, driving, or drug testing for any other reason. This information will help ensure your prescription is not in contradiction with your lifestyle.
Knowledge Is Power
Full-spectrum CBD oil may have the additional benefits of the entourage effect, potentially making it more appropriate for certain conditions than an isolate or a broad spectrum.
Medical cannabis is complex in nature — the plant itself is incredibly sophisticated with various compounds and the processes for extracting a full-spectrum oil are highly specific.
The more you, as a patient, understand about the plant and the potential benefits of the entourage effect, the better prepared you will be. With medical cannabis literacy in your back pocket, you can ask the right questions and work with your doctor to make informed decisions.