Mind & Matter is a monthly column by Nick Jikomes, PhD, Leafly’s Director of Science and Innovation.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in cannabis, after THC. It’s commonly believed to be non-psychoactive, a myth arising from the fact that it’s non-intoxicating–it won’t get you high. Based on how it works in the brain, CBD can affect mood, which means it is psychoactive. But CBD is not a potent drug. Most of its scientifically documented effects are only observed when high doses are used.
Are there any CBD products that can supply you with high enough doses to be useful, without being prohibitively expensive?
CBD’s Effects & Bioavailability
A number of large-scale clinical trials have been conducted over the years, documenting CBD’s ability to treat severe forms of childhood epilepsy, culminating in the FDA’s approval of Epidiolex (a CBD-based drug). While CBD has been proven to work as a treatment for specific types of epilepsy, this requires very large doses. Epileptic children are often given 600+ milligrams per dose. But what about the average CBD consumer, who isn’t suffering from childhood epilepsy and is seeking relief from milder, more common ailments like anxiety or inflammation?
There are a number of studies showing that CBD can have anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory effects. As with childhood epilepsy, these effects are only reliably seen with sufficiently high doses of CBD. Studies showing an anti-anxiety effect tend to use ~300 milligrams or more of CBD taken in pill form. This is because CBD, like other cannabinoids, has low oral bioavailability – your body will only absorb and utilize a small fraction of what you ingest. As a rule of thumb, your body may only “see” ~10% of the CBD you swallow. If you consume 300 milligrams of CBD orally, you should only expect roughly 30 mg to hit your bloodstream, circulate throughout the body, and actually do something.
The low bioavailability of CBD poses a problem for most people, as CBD products typically contain very low levels of CBD. A typical oral CBD product, such as a capsule or gummy, often contains no more than a few milligrams of CBD per dose. If a CBD gummy contains 10 mg, your body might absorb just 1 mg of the CBD, and there’s no scientific evidence that such a low dose will do anything beyond triggering a placebo effect.
It’s a similar story with inflammation. Like most cannabinoids, CBD has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. But again, these effects are not observed in people taking CBD gummies with just a few milligrams of CBD. They’re observed in “test tube studies” where cells are bathed in high concentrations of CBD, or human studies using much larger doses than what’s typically found in consumer products.
A simple rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t expect any effects–anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, or otherwise–unless you’re consuming at least ~300 milligrams per dose. Is achieving this even possible without the dollar cost becoming unreasonable?
High Dose CBD Products Worth Trying
In general, the CBD product categories that offer the highest doses of CBD are tinctures or orally consumable products like capsules or gummies. Tinctures are liquid forms of CBD meant to be placed under the tongue or swallowed, with many individual tinctures containing hundreds or even thousands of milligrams of CBD per bottle. Capsules and gummies most often contain very low doses of CBD, no more than tens of milligrams each, but can sometimes contain hundreds of milligrams per dose. Again, 300 milligrams per dose is our rough benchmark for the minimum amount of CBD you will want to consume.
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One product I have personally tried and enjoyed are CBD gummies from cbdMD. This brand has products like full-spectrum CBD gummies containing 100 mg of CBD each, which come in bottles of 60 doses. That means one bottle can contain 6,000 mg of CBD. At $110/bottle, that means you’ll be paying about $0.18 per milligram. Not only are these doses more likely to yield physiologically relevant results, but they can contain more than just CBD. I like cbdMD’s full spectrum gummies, which contain 100 mg CBD each, together with 2 mg of THC. The presence of low-dose THC enables you to tell that something is really happening because you feel the psychoactive effects of THC.
Combining High Dose CBD With Low Dose THC
Consuming some THC together with CBD can provide synergistic effects. Both THC and CBD have anti-inflammatory properties, but act through different mechanisms. CBD can also affect the metabolism of other drugs, including THC. It’s now becoming appreciated that orally consuming CBD and THC together, at a high CBD:THC ratio, can actually increase the effects of THC. The reason for this is likely due to CBD’s inhibition of gut enzymes that metabolize THC. With enough CBD, THC is broken down more slowly.
One product I use are cbdMD’s full spectrum CBD:THC gummies, containing 100 mg CBD and 2 mg THC per gummy. I tend to use them at home at the end of a long day, especially after intense workouts. The combination of a relatively high dose of CBD with low dose THC gives me light psychoactive effects which last for at least a couple of hours, together with anti-inflammatory effects from both cannabinoids. This helps me relax and recuperate after exhaustive physical exertion.
Why Is CBD A Low Potency Drug?
It would be convenient if CBD was more potent, and a single milligram was all you needed to experience tangible health benefits. But that’s not the case. In fact, CBD’s low potency may actually be the key to its therapeutic potential. Unlike many high potency pharmaceuticals, CBD does not bind strongly to just one or a small number of receptors in the body. Instead, it interacts weakly with many different receptors. The major drawback of a drug like this is that you need to consume a higher dose for measurable effects to set in. An advantage to such a drug is that it’s not “hammering” one receptor type very hard, which may be why CBD is well-tolerated with little side effect potential for most people.
I previously spoke to cannabinoid expert Dr. Ethan Russo about CBD’s potency and pharmacological effects:
If you’re interested in experimenting with CBD to alleviate anxiety or inflammation, keep these simple guidelines in mind:
- Consume at least 300 mg CBD per dose. A lower dose might be effective, but that hasn’t been conclusively demonstrated.
- Consider combining CBD with low dose THC.
- Identify brands that can consistently provide high dose CBD + low dose THC at an affordable price.
Are There Other Ways to Consume CBD?
In general, orally consumed cannabinoids will have lower bioavailability than inhaled cannabinoids. While there are plenty of vaporizable CBD products out there, I prefer oral CBD for two reasons: first, it’s convenient. We can all easily chew or swallow a gummy or capsule, without the strong, bitter taste that often accompanies cannabis oils or tinctures placed in the mouth. Second, CBD vapor is often “scratchier” than THC vapor due to CBD’s chemical properties. This can make CBD vapor somewhat uncomfortable or elicit coughing, even if you’re used to vaporizing THC. Although inhaled cannabinoids are typically more bioavailable than swallowed cannabinoids, inhalaeble products usually don’t contain high enough concentrations of CBD to get us close to our informal 300 milligram threshold.
How To Get Started With High Dose CBD
Here are some brands and products that you can look into to get started. (Note: no brands were consulted in order to create this content. These are just examples I have used in my own life, and there are probably more out there).
Learn More About CBD’s Biological Effects
To learn more about what we know about what CBD does, how it does it, and what scientists are still learning, check out these articles and podcast episodes: