EducationWhat is CBD? A beginners guide to cannabidiol

What is CBD? A beginners guide to cannabidiol

8 min read

Lucy MacKinnon

What is CBD? A beginners guide to cannabidiol
CBD is a compound produced by cannabis and hemp plants that recent research has shown the potential for incredible therapeutic value. With minimal associated side effects and a host of possible benefits to health, an overwhelming 1.3 million people in the UK are estimated to have regularly used CBD products during 2020 to aid a number of health concerns and conditions.


Short for cannabidiol, CBD has been shown to have the potential to evoke anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, anticonvulsant, antianxiety and analgesic responses from the body. These responses may make it effective in relieving irritation caused by skin conditions, reducing inflammation, and lowering pain levels in patients with arthritis, along with a range of other possible applications.

Cannabidiol has also been shown that it may be effective in relieving anxiety, reducing seizure rates in children with epilepsy, and reducing oxidative stress levels that affect patients with various health conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease.

So, what is CBD?

Although its medicinal and therapeutic applications span millennia, the cannabis compound CBD has only been investigated independently in the last 80 years. In 1940, Harvard-trained chemist Roger Adams made medical history when he successfully isolated cannabidiol from the cannabis plant. This discovery paved the way for modern cannabis medicines.

In the modern day, CBD products like creams, tinctures, and gummies are typically made from hemp-derived cannabidiol. Although part of the cannabis family, hemp plants contain minuscule amounts of THC in comparison to cannabis sativa plants, and so they often provide purer extractions. CBD, along with other cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes, can be extracted from cannabis and hemp plants in numerous ways, but the most commonly used methods involve ethanol, butane, or CO2.

After extraction, CBD isolate can be used on its own, or as an ingredient in health or wellness products and medications. These can be categorised into two main categories: broad-spectrum products and full-spectrum products. Broad-spectrum products don’t contain any THC, but they do contain a range of terpenes, flavonoids, and every other chemical compound found in the cannabis or hemp plant from which it was extracted.

Full-spectrum CBD products also contain flavonoids, terpenes and cannabinoids, but they also contain small amounts of THC if sourced from hemp, or larger quantities if extracted from cannabis sativa strains. Some full-spectrum CBD products are also advertised as whole plant products, which means that they also contain other natural cannabis excipients such as fats and waxes.

Benefits of CBD

Seeking relief from symptoms associated with anxiety and other mood issues is some of the most common reasons people report starting their journey with CBD. Numerous studies have displayed that CBD may offer naturally calming benefits, including an anxiety study that demonstrated that CBD may possibly reduce anxiety levels of subjects whilst participating in a public speaking test after taking CBD. 

More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey of CBD usage in Poland showed that 86% of the 90 respondents felt relief from symptoms of anxiety and depression when self-treating with cannabidiol, and found that 59% had incorporated it into their daily lives. While this study does not conclusively prove that CBD was the deciding factor in why participants felt a lift in mood, it does certainly suggest that CBD may have the potential help people suffering from mood disorders. 

A large case series published in 2019 reported that CBD may be beneficial in aiding both anxiety and sleep. Within one month, 57 patients experienced a 79% reduction in their anxiety scores and 48 patients had noted a significant improvement in their sleep, as their scores had improved by an average of 66.7%. Patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have also reported CBD’s potential as a therapeutic drug, particularly due to its association with improving disturbed sleep rates and reducing the prevalence of triggering nightmares.

CBD has most famously been clinically investigated in the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. Due to its potential remarkable effects on certain forms of paediatric epilepsy, CBD-based medicines have been approved by agencies like the FDA and MHRA to treat certain forms of the disease. These include Dravet Syndrome and Lennox Gastaut Syndrome. Studies have demonstrated a seizure reduction rate of 85% when taken in the treatment of these conditions in children, and up to 40% when taken in a study involving both adults and children alongside their normal medications.

Some of CBD’s popularity can also be attributed to its reputation as a possible rapid pain reliever. 

In 2021, data from a study involving patients with muscular, neck, back, or other arthritic pains found that 5 mg of CBD may have helped to reduce pain from a moderate to tolerable level within 20 minutes of administration. Skin conditions have also been shown to have the potential to be improved with cannabidiol-based treatments, due to its possible anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Side effects of CBD

The most commonly reported side effects of CBD are categorised as minor adverse reactions, this can include having a dry mouth, feeling lethargic, or even slightly light headed. However, there have been more serious side effects noted when cannabidiol is consumed alongside certain prescription medications. This includes levothyroxine, amiodarone and warfarin, which are commonly prescribed to regulate the thyroid, heart rhythm, and blood thinning respectively.

It is important to note that these interactions are not specific to cannabidiol and can also be displayed when other natural products are consumed. For example, grapefruit has been shown to affect the metabolism of certain antidepressants, calcium can negatively impact the absorption of some antibiotics, and vegetables containing high levels of Vitamin K are known to hinder the efficacy of anticoagulants like Warfarin.

Nevertheless, it is important to discuss medicinal CBD administration with your doctor and follow the medical guidance given to reduce the risk of adverse drug interactions and their subsequent associated side effects.

Legal status of CBD

In the UK, CBD products can be sold over the counter, as long as they are not advertised or sold as a medicine, or they can be clinically prescribed by specialist doctors following the legalisation of cannabis-based medical products in November 2018. When sold over the counter, cannabidiol-based products are not legally allowed to contain any more than 0.2% THC. They come in a variety of forms including foods, drinks, beauty products, dietary supplements as well as vaping or tincture oils.

Industry-specific regulations are also placed on CBD products, for example in the beauty and wellness world, products containing cannabidiol must conform to cosmetic regulations and be assessed under the CPSR framework. When being sold as dietary supplements, in food or drinks, CBD products in the UK are required to be approved as Novel Foods by The European Commission. In the vaping industry, oils containing cannabidiol must conform to the General Product Safety Regulations and contain no presence of nicotine.

Across the world, the regulation and legality of cannabinoids like CBD differ. In 2020, The European Commission ruled that cannabidiol did not classify as a drug under the frameworks outlined by the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Instead, they noted its eligibility for categorisation with foods, so long as they conform to EU Food Safety Regulations.

How to take medicinal CBD

CBD is most commonly applied as an ingredient in edible products, topical products, and oils, that can either be administered via vaping, sublingual administration, or added to food or drinks as a dietary supplement. Once absorbed into the blood, cannabinoids have shown the potential to produce therapeutic effects in humans, but they enter the bloodstream in different ways depending on their type of administration.

Applying CBD products topically allows cannabidiol and other cannabis compounds to soak into the skin layer by layer until they reach the bloodstream. When ingested, these compounds have to be filtered through the stomach and then the liver before entering the bloodstream. When administered sublingually, CBD fast-tracks the digestive system and is absorbed through membranes in the mouth and straight into the bloodstream.

When taking CBD products, it is always best to ask for professional medical advice. Follow recommendations given by your prescribing doctor. It is recommended that you adopt the ‘start low and go slow’ policy when consuming products, unless you doctor specifically prescribes a high dose. When CBD-based products or medical cannabis is prescribed by specialist doctors, their dosage decisions are made through a process of titration. This is an analysis technique used by prescribing doctors for many types of medications and outlines a specific treatment plan for each patient.


Here at Releaf, we know that considering any type of new medical treatment can be complicated or concerning, and so we hope this beginner guide to CBD has helped answer some of the basic questions like ‘What does CBD stand for?’, ‘Is CBD legal?’ and ‘What are the benefits of CBD?’. 

To learn more about this cannabis compound’s therapeutic potential check out the rest of our medical cannabis series, and help us to remove the stigma surrounding medicinal cannabis by spreading awareness and education.

Releaf is committed to helping you access the benefits of a medical cannabis service. Our monthly packages are tailored to your cannabis prescription, and we offer specialist consultations for medical cannabis and a unique medical cannabis card for protection.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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With five years of journalism and healthcare content creation under her belt, Lucy strives to improve medical cannabis awareness and access in the UK by producing high quality, credible content.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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