Phytocannabinoids & the ECS: Your Top Qs, Answered!

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Last year, in our 5th annual deep-dive into the phytocannabinoid market, we explored the research, regulatory issues, legal concerns, and more. It was only 12 months ago, but to say a lot has changed would be an understatement. So this year, we asked the experts to address common questions regarding the current state of the science and the market in general, to give you an up-to-date overview of the category. Read on for the answers that can set you up for even greater success. And for more on selling phytocannabinoids, check experts share 4 Success Secrets.

Why is the endocannabinoid system (ECS) so important?
“Biologically, it’s a harsh world,” says Christopher Shade, Ph.D., Founder & CEO, Quicksilver Scientific. “For your body to function properly, it needs internal homeostasis. Without it, accumulation of toxins or a depletion of necessary nutrients can happen at a cellular level. The human body uses the ECS to maintain homeostasis. ECS is a neurotransmitter signaling system that uses endocannabinoids to bind with specific protein receptors throughout the body. Endocannabinoids are endogenous fatty-acid neurotransmitters that bind with receptors that are found in every major system of the human body, but notably the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells.”

What’s amazing about the ECS, adds Michael D. Lewis, M.D., MPH, MBA, FACPM, FACN, CV Sciences Medical Advisor, is how prevalent it is in human physiology. “It’s involved in almost all the processes essential to life and seems to function as a balancing system for the body and mind. The endocannabinoids are involved in everything from temperature regulation to digestion and from immune system responses to the calming of overexcited neurons. We’ve only been studying the endocannabinoid system for 30 years now, but it’s already become clear it is one of the most important recent discoveries in human health.”

The ECS plays a role helping to keep a healthy balance in so many everyday functions—sleep, healthy stress response, our ability to keep inflammation in check, to name a few—that it is definitely a system we want to support and nurture, adds Ola Lessard, VP, Marketing & Communications at Barlean’s. “Essentially, if we take care of our ECS, our ECS can take care of us.”

What role do phytocannabinoids play in helping to bring the ECS into balance?
The endocannabinoid system contains receptors throughout the body that are specifically geared for cannabinoids, says Lessard. “While our body makes its own cannabinoids—endocannabinoids—we may need to supplement those with the cannabinoids that come from plants, which are called phytocannabinoids. This is similar to many other supplements we take to help our body where it can’t keep up, or our lifestyles of stress and sub-optimal nutrition can leave us lacking in something important.”

Calling it “a brilliant example of convergent evolution,” Dr. Lewis explains how phytocannabinoids help to balance the endocannabinoid system within us. Looking at cannabidiol (CBD), he says: “From what we know of its effects, in healthy people it seems to help them maintain health. But when parts of the body or brain are out of balance, that is where the CBD goes to restore homeostasis.”

CBD, adds Dr. Shade, is one of the most active and potent phytocannabinoids found in cannabis. “Research shows that CBD enhances the expression of CB1 receptors in the brain. And it increases levels of the endocannabinoid 2-AG by preventing it from breaking down. Positive results reported include improved appetite, modulating body discomfort, healthy inflammatory response, sleep support, stress management and improved mood.”

In addition to what CBD does in regard to endocannabinoid receptors, Dr. Lewis says, “it also modulates important neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and the opioids in addition to its ability to alter genetic transcription.”

For more on the ECS, read Nurturing the ECS: Experts’ Top Tips.

Awareness of hemp-derived cannabinoids is growing. What’s on the horizon beyond CBD?
Interest in cannabinoids outside of CBD is driven by three factors, says Collette Kakuk, VP Global Marketing, HempRise:

  • Deregulation that erases past stigma and brings the benefits of industrial hemp back into mainstream;
  • Modern science and technological advances that allow scientists to more deeply research the composition and efficacy of cannabinoids;
  • Access to information, with smartphones and social media.

“THC and CBD were the first out of gate for the well-known benefits of natural cannabinoids, and now as the hemp industry conducts more clinical studies on the other cannabinoids and terpenes, more specialized products will be available,” Kakuk says, adding that there are increased opportunities from minor cannabinoids such as CBG, CBC, CBN, CBGA.

And while they are labeled “minor,” that’s not a reflection on their action. Dr. Lewis contends, “Wrongly called the minor cannabinoids, the other phytocannabinoids in the hemp plant cause as wide an array of effects as CBD. Molecules like CBG, CBN, CBC, and THC all cause their own unique range of actions and even though true agricultural hemp tends to have low levels of these cannabinoids, it seems like even small amounts of them can help CBD work better for health.” That said, he stresses that any individual hemp-derived cannabinoid would face the same regulatory obstacles CBD has encountered.

There’s much to learn about the minors. Michael Bryce, Co-Founder and Global CMO, Healist Advanced Naturals, says more research is needed. “CBN, for instance, is thought to have sleep-inducing effects, which is why we at Healist have included 1.5mg of CBN across our range of Sleep Drops. CBG is also thought to have calming and body-soothing properties similar to CBD.”

Seconding the need for research, Steve De Forest, COO, Green Gorilla, says, “As research into CBD, itself, has greatly increased over the past year, it is still somewhat limited. You can understand, then, that research/studies into other cannabinoids would be minimal at best. However, early research into CBG and, to a lesser extent, CBN, is very promising. Current anecdotal evidence is showing reported benefits such as relief of inflammation, pain and nausea with CBG and relief of pain and anxiety as well as aiding with sleep with CBN.”

A deeper look at the science, from Jeremy Stewart, Ph.D., Gaia Herbs Chief Scientist and VP of Scientific Affairs: “Research on cannabinoids has extended beyond the CB receptors (CB1 and CB2) to non-CB receptors. One of the most studied of these non-CB receptors are the transient receptor potential (TRP) channels. TRP channels are strongly associated with inflammation and therefore play a key role in supporting human health.” CBD, he says, has high affinity for several TRP channels. A recent in vitro study looked at the affinity of 11 cannabinoids at a TRP channel, and the results demonstrate there are many hemp-derived cannabinoids that are potent TRP channel agonists, such as CBG, CBGV, THCV, CBC, CBN, CBDV and CBD.

Another interesting aspect of the study, Dr. Stewart states, is that botanical-based extracts of Cannabis varieties were more abundant in these select cannabinoids when tested alongside the purified cannabinoid. “And in several cases the botanical-based extract was found to be more potent at the tested TRP channel than the purified cannabinoid. This data provides further evidence that full-spectrum cannabinoid extracts can be more beneficial than isolated compounds (such as CBD) and further substantiates the saying that ‘the whole is greater than the sum.’ As an herbal company, Gaia Herbs believes in the wisdom and power of whole-plant extracts, rather than just isolating a single class of constituents that science has identified and is suddenly trending in popularity. Plants contain hundreds of different compounds for a reason. These complex compounds work together to achieve results that no single compound can realize.”

What are key points to know about the entourage effect?
“By not excluding the minor cannabinoids vs. using a single isolate, like CBD, the complete natural healing properties of hemp extract provide an entourage synergy,” Kakuk explains. “It’s something we at Hemprise are focusing on with clinical studies and support we provide to customers. By leveraging the full power of hemp extracts in products such as HempClean (Full Spectrum with <0.2% THC) and Hemp Broad (Broad Spectrum—no THC), we can enable our customers to tailor their product offering to their customers.” She notes that HempRise customers are taking increased interest in CBG and CBGA, in combination with additional cannabinoids and terpenes. There’s also, she says, innovation and formulation around the synergistic effects of CBD with key botanicals that HempRise incorporates from its parent company, Layn Natural Ingredients.

Many consumers are still wary of THC, adds Jim Higdon, Co-Founder and Chief Communications Officer, Cornbread Hemp, “but when CBD is combined with a legal micro-dose of THC, the effects of the CBD seem to be more pronounced, according to anecdotal reports. Other minor cannabinoids—CBG, CBN, etc.—are gaining popularity with some consumers inside the cannabinoid community. However with general consumers, we talk about the value of full spectrum CBD over THC-free, broad spectrum, and CBD isolate. Employment drug testing continues to limit some consumers’ ability to use full spectrum products, and that’s a shame. Cornbread Hemp only offers full spectrum CBD products.”

What are the benefits of formulating with additional ingredients?
“By including multiple cannabinoids together to heighten the Endocannabinoid response, other botanical extracts can also aid in total health and wellness benefit, now that the body is receptive to repair,” says Kakuk. “For example, once CBD has relaxed the body in an area of inflammation, other known antioxidants can be used in conjunction to reduce joint pain and muscle soreness, especially post work-out, or to aid sleep. Products such as chamomile or melatonin are known to aid sleep; now combined with quality hemp extracts, these products empower you to naturally handle stress.”

At Gaia Herbs, says Stacey Gillespie, Brand Director, hemp is viewed as an herb just like all the other herbs that are used in Gaia’s products. “We believe in the synergy that occurs when two or more compounds are combined to produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. In simpler terms, it refers to the interactions between an individual plant’s multiple compounds or an herb’s ability to offer even greater benefits when paired with another herb. It is this synergy that enhances the overall benefits to humans.” The company recently introduced a new line of Hemp & Herbs formulas, which Gillespie says each offers 20 mg of total hemp cannabinoids combined with traditional herbs. “The benefit of Hemp is that the cannabinoids are known to support a healthy endocannabinoid response in the body, whereas other herbs when combined with hemp can support a more specific response in the body.” The line include Hemp & Herbs Calm (with American Skullcap, Lavender, Passionflower, Holy Basil, and Milky Oats); Hemp & Herbs Relief (with Turmeric, Chinese Skullcap, and Black Pepper); and Hemp & Herbs Sleep (with a calming blend of herbs including California Poppy, Milky Oats, Hops, and Vervain).

With various options for delivery methods, consumers wonder what to take. What are your general recommendations?
“The various delivery methods truly boil down to two: oral and topical,” says Dr. Lewis. Key points:

  • For topical products, Dr. Lewis says, it’s all about finding a high-quality brand that uses safe ingredients and high-quality hemp extract. “Plus, you want to find something that agrees with your skin.”
  • For oral products, Dr. Lewis continues, the difference is mostly a matter of taste. “My favorite are the softgels. Some people enjoy the taste of hemp and use an oil or spray under the tongue for faster results. For those who find hemp not as palatable, capsules and softgels allow you to enjoy the benefits of CBD without the flavor. There will be a small difference in absorption time because the capsules and softgels need time to break down in your stomach—but that effect should not be large.”

Something to keep in mind, according to Lessard: “Our bodies aren’t the best at processing oils and fats via the digestive system, so delivery format really does make a difference when it comes to any oil-based nutrient or supplement, including CBD. Swallowing any traditional oils subjects them to the first pass digestive process, and we lose a lot of the nutrients in that process. Sublingual use is great, but only if people really do hold it under the tongue for a long enough time before swallowing—most companies suggest a minute—and I’m not convinced people usually do that. Barlean’s is a big believer in emulsification, since that allows far superior absorption of oil or fat-based nutrients.”

Experimentation might be needed over time for best results, says Dr. Shade, adding that Quicksilver Scientific’s nanoemulsion and liposomal products can be utilized for greater bioavailability and fast-acting results.

Gillespie adds that it may be beneficial to take Hemp/CBD topically and orally at the same time. But the best advice, she says, is for people to figure out what is most convenient and useful for them personally, and which they will be more likely to take according to the suggested use instructions. “Maybe you prefer the convenience of capsules so you can easily toss a bottle in your bag to use during the day, or perhaps you decide you are more likely to consistently use a Hemp extract and make it a part of your daily breakfast routine. Take the one that best fits your lifestyle and you are more likely to consistently use according to the instructions as that is how you will receive the most benefits from the product.” Bryce seconds that, adding, “It is important to take CBD daily to help maintain sustained levels in your system, so from an ingestible view, whatever you are most comfortable with and can most easily incorporate into your daily life is best.”

Does timing matter?
“Everyone’s endocannabinoid system is unique, and there’s no way your doctor or your friend or your relative can predict how hemp CBD extracts will affect you,” Dr. Lewis notes. “For instance, we hear a wide array of responses around sleep and energy. Some people love taking their CBD before bed. Others find it activating as a cup of tea and decide taking it in the morning is what helps them sleep better at night. And others find it doesn’t affect their sleep or energy levels at all. There’s no way to know what category you might be in without experimenting for yourself. Everyone’s sweet spot is different. The amount of CBD to take, when to take it—each person has to find out what works best.”

Of course, it’s important to advise consumers to consult their healthcare providers. It’s also essential to avoid making claims that phytocannabinoids will help in the treatment, prevention or mitigation of any disease or medical condition. For guidance, consult “Roadmap For Retailers: What You Can and Cannot Say About Supplements” from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). And for tips on selling phytocanninoids, go here.

Related: Selling Phytocannabinoids: 4 Success Secrets
Nurturing the ECS: Experts’ Top Tips

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