As we learn more about the benefits of holistic wellness and alternative therapies, it becomes ever clearer that hemp products like CBD — scientifically known as cannabidiol — cannot be ignored. But what is CBD, and how can it possibly help people with chronic diseases like diabetes?
For a lot of people, CBD’s association with marijuana is enough to scare patients away from considering it. This can certainly cause anxiety if you are concerned about getting high, feeling cognitively impaired, or using an illegal product. CBD — as helpful as it’s shown to be — is still misunderstood. So, let’s dive into some of the facts around what CBD is and what it isn’t.
What is CBD?
First things first: CBD is a natural compound that is extracted from the Cannabis sativa plant. Yes, this is the same plant that tetrahydrocannabinol (aka THC, or marijuana) comes from — but CBD by itself is not marijuana and it cannot get you high.
Now, CBD can be extracted from both hemp and cannabis. Hemp is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, meaning it can’t get you high like marijuana does. It carries almost no THC content (less than 0.3 percent, the legal limit) and it is not a controlled substance in the US. It is also not illegal.
Marijuana, on the other hand, contains much more THC and is a controlled substance. It is what produces a high or euphoric feeling.
When you use CBD, it’s the ratio between THC and CBD that makes the difference. Hemp-derived CBD contains less than 0.3 percent THC while marijuana-derived CBD contains 5 to 30 percent THC.
People who want the health benefits without the high (which includes many patients with chronic diseases and pain) will purchase hemp CBD oil that contains less than 0.3 percent THC or is entirely THC-free.
CBD is generally sold in the form of tinctures or oils, supplements, extracts, and gummies. It is also found in pain-relieving and calming gels, lotions, and bath salts. It’s not usually smoked.
Most of the CBD oils on the market are labeled “full-spectrum,” which means that they’re rich with almost all of the health-friendly compounds within the cannabis plant that are also not psychoactive. These include flavonoids (which are polyphenols and antioxidants), other cannabinoids, and terpenes (therapeutic compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antidiabetic effects). In other words, “full-spectrum” CBD contains natural compounds that can help boost your overall health and support your diabetes management regimen.
What does the research say about CBD?
To understand why CBD works, it’s best to understand how. First, CBD works with your endocannabinoid system, which is designed to promote homeostasis — or harmony — within your body. In fact, endocannabinoids are actually cannabis-like molecules made naturally within your body. When you use CBD, it influences or activates these receptors. It has also been found to influence non-cannabinoid receptors as well.
According to UCLA Health, “We now know the endocannabinoid system is involved in a wide variety of processes, including pain, memory, mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism, immune function, and reproductive function. Endocannabinoids are arguably one of the most widespread and versatile signaling molecules known to man.”
One of the main reasons people turn to CBD is for chronic pain. The National Library of Medicine states that CBD oil has been found to provide relief for a variety of conditions, including chronic pain.
CBD has even influenced the creation of certain drugs. In fact, in June 2018, the first CBD-based drug was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to help treat severe epilepsy.
Other studies have found that well-sourced CBD oils are found to have a host of benefits — many of which can be of help to diabetics. Beyond pain and epilepsy, CBD is used as a holistic remedy for:
- feelings of anxiety and obsessive behavior
- inflammation and oxidative stress
What does CBD do to help diabetes?
Perhaps most importantly, CBD has been shown to improve inflammation levels and oxidative stress (effects from free radicals within the body), says Dr. Junella Chin, Integrative MD and chief medical expert for Yesterday Wellness. “Cannabinoids work on nerve endings, reducing pain and inflammation. It can get to the heart of the problem versus taking a pain reliever, which is temporary.”
This can be a big deal, as diabetes is an inflammatory condition. Rampant inflammation can also cause insulin resistance.
The American Journal of Pathology found, “CBD was able to reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, cell death, and vascular hyperpermeability associated with diabetes,” noting that “oxidative stress and inflammation play critical roles in the development of diabetes and its complications.”
CBD may also improve insulin resistance and pancreas health. In a study on animal subjects with non insulin-treated type 2 diabetes, it was found that subjects who received CBD at 100 mg twice daily (as well as other treatments like tetrahydrocannabivarin, a phytocannabinoid), saw significantly decreased fasting plasma glucose and improved pancreatic health.
According to Rory Batt MSc, who studies the connection between the endocannabinoid system, CBD and type 2 diabetes, CBD may help boost pancreatic health in humans as well. “CBD can also help to protect the pancreas from becoming destroyed by overactive immune cells. Effectively, this means someone may be able to keep producing insulin themselves for longer. However, unless they ultimately change their diet as well, they will inevitably end up with a pancreas that cannot produce insulin—but CBD could significantly extend the time until that happens.”
Another potential benefit of CBD for diabetics? It can help improve diabetic neuropathy, says Dr. Chin. Diabetic neuropathy is a painful type of nerve damage that is caused by high blood sugars damaging nerves through the body. Patients often feel this in their feet or legs, and CBD can help relieve some of that discomfort and pain.
How does CBD work?
But how does it all work? CBD targets something called G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). Dr. Chin says these are some of the largest receptors in our bodies, playing a diverse role in bodily functions.
In fact, more than a third of our prescription drugs, including those for diabetes, are made to bind to GPCRs. “That’s how important it is. The fact that cannabinoids are the largest GPCR is why CBD may affect insulin resistance.”
According to Dr. Chin, CBD should be used as a long-term tool, not something you take here and there. “It’s best for long-term use because of its relatively safe profile and cumulative effects. Day one will be different from day 30. If you give it time, you may be able to turn the volume down on your inflammation.”
Reducing inflammation and disease activity requires a holistic approach, of course. Beyond using CBD, you’ll want to ensure you’re using your prescribed medications correctly, managing your stress levels, eating a colorful, anti-inflammatory diet (think veggies, fruits, and healthy fats), and exercising very regularly. All of these behaviors work together to reduce inflammation and help establish more balanced hormone levels.
Dr. Chin believes that CBD helps to treat some of the core issues behind diabetes, and that it can help improve overall diabetes lifestyle management. It’s not that CBD magically corrects insulin sensitivity right away, but rather that it can be helpful as part of a larger holistic regimen.
What should I know before I try CBD?
While enthusiasts have incorrectly lauded CBD as a miracle drug, it is more of a subtle supplement that can work differently for every person. Here are some tips for diabetes patients who want to try CBD for the first time:
- Clear it with your doctor first. It’s smart to speak with your healthcare provider before starting a CBD regimen, especially if you're using an array of medications, as CBD may interfere with drug metabolism in some instances.
- Do your research. Because CBD isn’t regulated, it’s always best to do your research and buy your CBD from trustworthy sellers. Batt recommends making sure your CBD supplier is transparent about testing. “Use brands that test for heavy metals, mycotoxins and pesticides, as these can all disrupt endocrine function,” he says. Lord Jones is a reputable brand.
- Consider “full-spectrum” CBD. Full-spectrum CBD, because of its cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes, provides the ‘entourage effect’ that may be beneficial for inflammation and insulin resistance.
- Experiment with dosage. If you’re going to use CBD, try aiming for 2.5 - 20 mg per day — but you may need to experiment with dosage and brand before seeing positive results. You can always increase your dosage, but you can't take it down again. So, start at the lowest dosage and go from there.