Does CBD get you high?
We speak to leading experts to ask the v important question; does CBD get you high?
image Jeff Vespa / Getty
words Ella Glover
Despite being on our shelves for less than a decade, CBD products have exploded in popularity in the UK. In fact, products containing CBD only became legal in 2016. Why? Well, that’s because CBD is one of the two main chemical compounds found in weed. We know what you’re wondering: can CBD get you high? But, don’t worry – or, should we say, sorry to disappoint? – despite being a cannabinoid, CBD is the least whacky of the two main chemicals that make weed what it is. There’s a reason it’s legal, after all.
Not only is CBD legal, but it's popular: In the UK, the CBD market more than doubled between 2019 and 2021 and, according to the Financial Times, the European CBD market is set to surpass 3.4 billion EUR before the end of the decade. And the wellness industry has played no small part – you can buy CBD infused oils, gummies, drinks, bath bombs and skincare products from any major health retailer.
So what gives? What is CBD and what makes it different from the devil’s lettuce? How is chomping on a CBD gummy or adding a few drops of oil to your coffee any different to rolling up and smoking a joint?
Dw, we’ve got you. Woo spoke with two leading experts: Elisabeth Philipps, a clinical neuroscientist and expert on phytocannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, and Dr Mikael Sodergren, principal investigator at Imperial College London’s Medical Cannabis Research Group.
What is CBD?
Seeing the letters CBD plastered on pretty much any wellness product can be a little desensitising. CBD is actually short for cannabidiol and isn’t some mystery ingredient, it’s simply a chemical compound found in a plant – the hemp plant, to be specific.
As Philipps explains, “it’s one of dozens of natural hemp chemicals classed as cannabinoids, which also includes THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).” Remember that last one, it will be important later.
As Sodergren explains, Cannabinoids are essentially just a class of chemical compounds that are found primarily in the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids), but also in the human body (endocannabinoids).
How does CBD make you feel?
While CBD is still constantly being researched, there are more and more studies coming out every year about its effects and benefits. Essentially, says Philipps, CBD will make you feel differently depending on why you’re using it. “For many people, they feel naturally more relaxed which could be a direct result of CBD’s effects on mood but also because CBD can improve your quality of sleep,” she tells Woo. “People also report reduction in pain, from sport injuries for example.”
CBD works by affecting the body’s endocannabinoid system. As Philipps Explains: “this system is spread throughout the entire body including in the brain, gut, heart, skin and immune system, which is why CBD can have so many effects including reducing pain from injury, improving sleep and improving mood”.
CBD helps to raise levels of the body’s own endocannabinoids, which can affect how our body handles stress, our sleep, our appetite and changes in our mood. For example, Philipps says, low levels of endocannabinoid contribute to anxiety.
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CBD Vs THC
CBD and THC are the two main chemical compounds found in cannabis, but they both have different purposes. As you can probably tell, understanding the key differences between CBD and THC takes a bit of a chemistry lesson, so lab coats on girlies.
According to Sodergern, there are around 120 different cannabinoids found in the cannabis sativa plant (one variety of cannabis). CBD and THC are the two main cannabinoids found in cannabis, but they both do pretty different things. Namely, THC is psychoactive and is responsible for getting us high. CBD, on the other hand, isn’t. This is because Sodergren explains: “CBD has the same chemical structures as THC but the atoms are arranged differently, therefore they have different chemical properties.”
This means that they do different things to our bodies. “Cannabinoids bind to a number of receptors throughout all organ systems of the human body to produce a range of different effects,” he continues. “THC in particular binds to [CB1] cannabinoid receptors in the brain to release chemicals that are responsible for the feeling of ‘being high’.” That’s because these receptors are associated with euphoria, anxiety and memory impairment, aka the symptoms of being high. CBD, on the other hand, is a CB1 antagonist, meaning it negates the effects of THC and isn’t psychoactive.
Is CBD legal?
The biggest difference between CBD and THC is that the former is legal and the latter isn’t. Being the main culprit for getting us high, THC is classed as a class B illegal substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1972. However, CBD was made legal under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, so long as it doesn’t contain more than 0.2 percent THC.
That’s why CBD products are perfectly legal while weed itself isn’t.
What are the benefits of CBD?
As mentioned earlier, CBD has a wide range of effects on the body and mind. The top three, according to Philipps, are boosting mood; reducing pain; improving sleep.
A 2022 study found that multiple trials using animals and smaller clinical trials involving humans suggest CBD can be used to treat anxiety and PTSD, depression and psychosis, particularly schizophrenia. However, it concluded that more research is needed, but anecdotal evidence often backs up the hypothesis that CBD helps with anxiety.
Although human studies on the effects of CBD on sleep are often small, and more research is needed, there are some promising results. A small 2019 study of 72 participants found that patients saw improved sleep in the first month of using CBD, but these results fluctuated over time, and a 2021 study found that CBD helped to improve sleep quality in people with Parkinson’s Disease.
As Sodergern notes, CBD can also be used to treat epilepsy. Small studies have shown that CBD can help to reduce seizures in adults and children, however, some patients experienced adverse effects in both studies.
And that’s not even everything. “Research is coming online all the time to show CBD and other cannabinoids are supportive in many areas of health,” says Philipps. “This includes supporting the immune system in viral attacks, helping to manage psychological conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis. CBD and research into cancer therapies is also a big area.”
Which CBD product should you choose?
From bath bombs to tinctures, there are so many different CBD products on the market, it can be difficult to know what's what. It’s important to remember that not all CBD products are made equally.
“You can take CBD in different ways but it does make a difference to how much is absorbed into the body,” says Philipps. “Taking it under the tongue using mouth sprays or drops is the most efficient way of getting CBD directly into the body. If you ingest via capsules or gummies then what you absorb in your gut is broken down very quickly by the liver so not as much gets into your system.”
Philipps suggests sticking to oils and adding in CBD topical cream, lotion, gel or balms if you have specific muscles or target areas on your skin that you want to support.
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