What is Cannabidiol (CBD)?

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Jan 30, 2024
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

Cannabidiol, or CBD for short, is one of the many cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids are compounds that affect us in various ways through interacting with our body’s endocannabinoid system. There are many different cannabinoids, some of which come from cannabis and others that exist naturally in our system. 

You may be familiar with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is also a cannabinoid, but unlike CBD, THC causes the psychotropic effects that cannabis is known for. Many people refer to these effects as a ‘high.’ While it’s not psychotropic, CBD may have several health benefits and may reduce the severity of some of THC’s side effects. 

Essentially all cannabis plants contain CBD. The amount of CBD in a cannabis plant depends on its strain or cultivar – some growers employ certain techniques to produce plants with high amounts of CBD. Even hemp plants have CBD, but are very low in THC. 

CBD treatment is becoming more and more popular, but you might be wondering what exactly the recent research says about its benefits and risks. There is a lot to learn about CBD, including the different forms it comes in, if it’s safe for most people to use and how it interacts with your body. 

How Does CBD Work?

Like all cannabinoids, CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. The ECS is a complex network of cells and receptors that help regulate several bodily functions including our mood, appetite, pain perception, sleep and more. CBD also interacts with other systems in our body to create its effects.  

There are two cannabinoid receptors in our endocannabinoid system: cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1), found primarily in the central nervous system, and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2), found mostly in the immune system. CBD indirectly affects the CB1 receptors, while it directly binds and interacts with the CB2 receptors. 

CBD has a less straightforward method of action compared to THC, which mainly creates its effects through interacting with the CB1 receptors. CBD may also affect other pathways in our body such as the serotonin receptors, but research in this area is still in the early stages. We do know that CBD is complex and may affect a variety of receptors and systems, which is part of why it interests medical researchers. 

What Forms Does CBD Come In?

The most common way doctors prescribe CBD is in oil form. You can consume CBD oil by placing it under your tongue with a dropper, where it will bypass your digestive system and absorb directly into your bloodstream. There are also CBD oil capsules, which are easy to consume, discrete and help ensure consistent and accurate dosing.

Vaporising the dried cannabis flower is another way you can consume CBD. While flowers are typically higher in THC, they also contain CBD. There are also topical CBD products: creams, lotions and balms that you apply to your skin. A topical CBD product might suit you if you experience localised pain – being able to apply the cream directly to the painful area might provide better relief.  

Depending on your condition and personal reference, one of these forms of CBD might suit you better than others. If you’re looking for fast relief, vaping may be a good option, as the CBD is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream when inhaled and has a near instant effect. With other forms, such as oil or capsules, the effects will take more time to appear but may last longer. 

What Benefits Does CBD Have?

The research into CBD’s health benefits is still in the early stages, but it has shown promising results in helping manage health conditions such as chronic pain and anxiety. 

So far, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has only approved a small number of CBD products such as Epidyolex, a CBD mouth spray that may help manage rare forms of childhood epilepsy. There isn't yet a TGA-approved CBD product for conditions such as anxiety and chronic pain, but there are some promising early studies and anecdotal accounts. You can still access CBD products for these conditions if your doctor thinks it might help.

Studies have shown that CBD may be effective in managing pain. 2,701 people with fibromyalgia – a condition that causes chronic pain – were surveyed in a 2021 study, and they found that CBD generally reduced their pain. CBD may also have some use in managing other chronic pain conditions including endometriosis. CBD may act on cannabinoid receptors found in the endometrium, potentially reducing pain and inflammation. 

CBD’s potential use in managing anxiety isn’t as well understood, but researchers have found some encouraging results. A recent review of major studies found that CBD may have some anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) properties. 

A randomised, controlled trial from 2019 also found some good results using CBD to help people experiencing social anxiety disorder. Finally, another 2019 study found some evidence that CBD could help treat anxiety and improve sleep quality. 

Keep in mind that CBD still needs more research before we can confidently say it’s an effective treatment for certain conditions. Sometimes patients find more relief with medications that combine CBD with other cannabinoids, but speak with your doctor if you’re interested in CBD’s potential benefits. 

How Safe Is CBD And What Are The Side Effects?

Like all medications, CBD can cause side effects. Thankfully, most people tolerate CBD well and any side effects that do occur are usually mild. If you start using CBD, you may experience dizziness, dry mouth and fatigue. In rare cases, some people have experienced diarrhoea after using CBD. Speak to your doctor if you experience any of these side effects. 

Using CBD with other medications may also increase the risk of side effects occurring or cause some other medications to be less effective. This may happen through CBD interfering with how enzymes in the liver process other medications, causing either too much or not enough of the other medication to be broken down. Always let your doctor know about any medications you’re already taking before starting CBD treatment. 

Aside from the potential side effects and interactions with other medications, CBD is generally thought to be a safe treatment. Although there’s been little research into the safety of using CBD long-term, a 2018 study on people with treatment-resistant epilepsy found that most patients tolerated CBD well, with some of the participants using CBD for up to two years. 

Although most people don’t experience issues with CBD, everyone is different. Make sure to ask your doctor if CBD is safe for you and your condition.

Can I Travel With CBD Products?

If you have a valid prescription, it’s generally safe to travel with CBD products, provided you’re only travelling within Australia. Medical cannabis is legal in every Australian state or territory, but there are some things to keep in mind if you’re planning on taking your CBD product interstate. 

First, you’re legally required to keep your CBD product in its original container or bottle when travelling, so that you can easily demonstrate that your CBD is legally prescribed to you. Make sure the pharmacy labels are still intact – these should have your personal information, your doctor’s information and your script. 

When travelling with a CBD product, there are some other measures you can take that aren’t required by law but might help set your mind at ease and clear up any misunderstandings. This includes asking your prescribing doctor to write a letter describing your CBD product and how much of it you’re bringing with you while travelling. You can also carry a clinic-issued patient card (if your prescribing clinic offers the service). 

If you’re travelling internationally, you’ll need to very carefully research your destination’s laws concerning cannabis use and possession. CBD products are still cannabis products, even though the compound doesn’t cause intoxication. In some countries the penalties for cannabis possession are severe, and they may lack the framework to support the medical use of cannabis.  

Even if you’ll only be in a certain country for a stopover, you’ll still run the risk of encountering legal trouble if the country has strict laws around medical cannabis. This is why you need to thoroughly research the laws at your destinations, including stopovers, to make sure that you won’t bring medical cannabis to a country that doesn’t allow it. 

The Future Of CBD Treatment

CBD’s potential medical benefits is an exciting area of research. In the years to come, CBD use might expand as we find out more about its medical properties through research and anecdotal evidence. CBD products are a popular option for those who are interested in medical cannabis but can’t or would prefer not to ingest THC. CBD on its own doesn’t cause intoxication and is not psychotropic.

You can either book an appointment with your regular healthcare provider to discuss medical cannabis, or you can go online and book with a dedicated medical cannabis clinic. Many Australians are finding CBD to be a useful supplementary medication – if you haven’t found relief with conventional treatments, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about CBD. 

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