What Is CBD? A Beginner’s Guide to the Medicinal Cannabis Compound

What Is Cannabidiol (CBD) and How Does It Work?

In This Article:
What Is CBD?
How CBD Affects the Brain and Body
Is CBD Safe?
Types of CBD
Common CBD Products

Nowadays, you can find CBD everywhere. From body lotion to baked goods, the compound shows up in all sorts of products. But what exactly is CBD, and what does it do to the person that uses it? 

Before trying CBD for sleep, or any purpose, you should understand where it comes from, how it works, and how your body may respond to the chemical. After reading our beginner's guide, you can decide for yourself whether or not the cannabis derivative is worth a try. 

As you read, remember that we aren't medical professionals and don't give medical advice, but we do want to help our readers understand the basics of CBD. If you still have questions after reading our guide or want to try CBD for yourself, be sure to consult with your doctor. 

What Is CBD?

CBD is one of the active ingredients found in the Cannabis sativa plant from the Cannabis genius. "CBD," short for cannabidiol, refers to the chemical compound extracted from the plant and used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. 

The CBD we know today was first extracted in a lab in 1940 by the "father of cannabis research," Israeli chemist Dr. Raphael Mecholulam. Mecholulam also discovered tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. 


What's the difference between CBD and THC? 

CBD and THC are both cannabinoids, a classification of chemical compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plant. The two compounds have some overlap in effects, but the main difference is that THC is psychoactive and produces a euphoric high, while CBD generally does not induce an altered state. 

Is it Possible to Get High From CBD? 

Though uncommon, it technically is possible to experience a high from CBD. As medical cannabis expert Dr. Junella Chin told Health, about 5 percent of people report feeling altered after taking CBD. 

It's also important to note that in many U.S. states, products marketed as CBD can legally contain up to .03 percent THC. If you're particularly sensitive to THC and do not want to experience psychoactive effects, opt for CBD products clearly labeled as THC-free.  

Where Does CBD Come From? 

You may have heard that CBD comes from hemp plants while THC comes from marijuana plants, but this narrative is misleading. Hemp and marijuana are not two different species within the Cannabis genus, as many people believe.

The terms "hemp" and "marijuana" refer to the same type of plant. 

The classification of hemp and marijuana is more semantic and socially motivated than scientific. The distinction between the two, devised by lawmakers, ultimately comes down to a difference in the plants' THC content. You can learn more about this misconception and why it persists here

So what are the facts? CBD and THC are two different chemical compounds derived from the exact same type of plant. However, growers breed some cannabis plants to have much less THC than others, making them ideal for CBD extraction and manufacturing CBD products. 

As a result, people often refer to any cannabis plant cultivated specifically for THC extraction as marijuana and any cannabis plant grown for non-psychoactive purposes (like CBD extraction or using the fibers for textiles) as hemp. Still, both terms refer to the same plant species. 

How CBD Affects the Brain and Body 

The Benefits of CBD

When exploring the many effects and potential benefits of CBD, it's crucial to separate marketing claims and anecdotal testimonies from scientific evidence. 

While many studies provide compelling evidence of CBD's therapeutic effectiveness for various ailments, much remains unknown about the compound and how it affects the human body and mind. 

That's not to say that CBD doesn't work or you shouldn't try it, but you should know that experiencing the touted benefits of CBD isn't guaranteed. 

That said, many people report the following CBD benefits: 

  • CBD may help treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. 
  • The compound may provide relief for chronic pain, including nerve pain. For example, people often use CBD to help relieve arthritis symptoms. 
  • Evidence suggests that CBD, like THC, may help manage cancer symptoms like pain and nausea. Some people also use it to manage symptoms of Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. 
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Epidiolex, a CBD product, to treat seizures associated with two forms of epilepsy in children. 
  • CBD may help people sleep and combat insomnia, which we explore in depth in another article

The Science Behind CBD

However you consume CBD, the compound takes effect through the endocannabinoid system, also known as the ECS. 

This system helps regulate various functions and processes in the body, such as mood, appetite, memory, sleep, reproduction, and pain sensations. Made up of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and enzymes, the ECS helps maintain homeostasis throughout the body. 

When someone consumes THC, the chemical compound binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the ECS. Some researchers believe CBD influences cannabinoid receptors without attaching to them. 

When CBD activates cannabinoid receptors in the nervous system, it produces therapeutic effects. CBD can also affect non-cannabinoid receptors, including serotonin receptors and the TRPV1 receptors that signal pain. 

Is CBD Safe? 

At the moment, there isn't enough research to deem CBD completely safe. However, it is generally well-tolerated, as explained by the Mayo Clinic. If you decide to try CBD for any purpose, you should consult with your doctor first. And, keep in mind that CBD can interact with other medications, such as blood thinners. 

CBD Side Effects 

Aside from potential drug interactions, possible side effects of CBD include drowsiness, dry mouth, nausea, and gastrointestinal problems.  

Not FDA Approved

It's important to note that the FDA has only approved one CBD product, Epidiolex. All other products containing CBD have not undergone FDA evaluation for side effects, safety concerns, proper dosage, and drug interactions. 

The FDA warns consumers to take caution of unproven claims, low-quality products, and incorrectly labeled CBD or THC content. 

Types of CBD 

Not all CBD products have the same cannabis-derived components. "Full-spectrum," "broad-spectrum," and "CBD isolate" refer to the three categories of CBD products and what they contain. 

Full-spectrum CBD 

Full-spectrum CBD contains all elements of the cannabis plant, including terpenes, flavonoids, and all types of cannabinoids. That means full-spectrum products have both CBD and THC.

Under federal law, products with a THC content of .03 percent or less are not controlled substances. 

If you want full-spectrum CBD but don't want, or legally can't buy, significant amounts of THC, look for a THC content of .03 percent or less. This trace amount of the psychoactive compound generally isn't enough to get users high. But remember, everyone has different tolerance levels. 

Broad-spectrum CBD

Like full-spectrum CBD, broad-spectrum CBD products contain more cannabinoids than just CBD, as well as terpenes. However, broad-spectrum CBD has no or very trace amounts of THC. 

CBD Isolate

Lastly, CBD isolate is "pure" (typically 99 percent or more) CBD. To make CBD isolate, manufacturers extract all other elements from the cannabis plant, including any cannabinoid that isn't CBD.  

Common CBD Products 

As CBD legalization continues to expand within the U.S., so does the availability and range of CBD products on the market. However, each U.S. state has its own laws regarding age restrictions, the forms of CBD permitted, and the amount allowed. For example, many states allow the sale of CBD, but not in any food or beverages. 

Depending on your age and which state you live in, you may be able to purchase some or all of the following legally:

  • CBD gummies
  • Other CBD edibles, like baked goods and drinks
  • CBD oil
  • CBD tinctures
  • CBD vapes
  • CBD bud and flower
  • Topical CBD products like lotion and makeup 

What's the Difference Between CBD Oil and Tincture?

A lot of people have this question when shopping for CBD products. While both liquids, CBD oil and CBD tinctures use different ingredients to accompany the CBD compounds. CBD oil contains CBD and a carrier oil such as coconut oil or palm oil. CBD tinctures, on the other hand, use alcohol as a base.

Does CBD Work if You Don't Ingest or Inhale It?  

Many people use topical CBD products like creams and balms to manage pain and inflammation or treat acne and eczema. For this to work, the CBD would have to be absorbed through the skin. Right now, there just isn't enough research to tell if CBD can relieve pain or reduce skin irritations transdermally. 

However, a 2015 study did find transdermal CBD treatment effective for reducing arthritis pain and inflammation in rats. Whether topical applications work for humans as well has yet to be determined. 


As with many supplements and medicinal products, there simply isn't enough data to determine if CBD does what advocates claim. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide if the potential benefits outweigh the unknowns and possible side effects. 

We hope that more illuminating research on CBD comes out in the upcoming years. Until then, practice caution, shop carefully, and temper your expectations.