The burgeoning CBD oil scene has made finding a product easier than ever, but it’s also made choosing a product harder. If you recall my post from years ago on decision fatigue, you’ll know what I’m talking about: the paralysis of too many choices…. I know my readership, and I know you’re the type of people who will wonder about optimizing their CBD ingestion. This stuff isn’t cheap, and it’s perfectly rational to want to get your money’s worth.
While the compound itself—cannabidiol, or CBD—doesn’t change from product to product, the way it’s administered does.
(Just a reminder that we’re talking here about CBD oil, a.k.a. “hemp extract,” a legal form of cannabis with extremely low levels of psychoactive THC: there’s no “high” with CBD oil, but CBD oil does contain cannabidiol, a component with big physiological impacts for health. Read more on those impacts here. Likewise, “hemp oil” is different from CBD oil; hemp oil isn’t made from the full plant and doesn’t contain substantive CBD content. For the purpose of this article, I’m covering CBD oil only.)
Let’s look at the forms of available CBD oil….
There are oral CBD oil supplements—gummies, capsules, infused teas, chocolates. Things you eat and drink and digest.
There are sublingual CBD oil supplements—sprays, tinctures, lozenges. Things you swish and swirl around your mouth.
There are topical CBD—creams, lotions, and balms.
There are patches—things you rub and attach to your skin.
There is high-CBD cannabis and CBD-only vape juice. Things you can vaporize and inhale.
But how do you choose? What are the differences between the various routes of administration?
Speed of absorption. How quickly do you want the CBD to take effect?
Intensity. How powerful do you want your CBD “experience” to be?
Duration. How long do you want it to last?
Effects. Where do you want it to take effect?
Oral CBD is the most common method of administration. It’s simple, easy, and intuitive. Everyone swallows pills, eats food, and drinks fluids. There’s almost no way to mess it up (choking aside).
Oral CBD is readily absorbed. Like most everything else that travels through the digestive system, it goes to the liver to be metabolized and converted into different metabolites. The liver is so central to oral CBD that people with poor liver function actually end up with higher serum CBD after taking it orally, since their livers aren’t as good at metabolizing it into different compounds. This liver route also means it takes longer for oral CBD to take effect, but it lasts longer.
Taking an acute oral dose every once in awhile is less effective than consistent dosing because of the liver’s tendency to regulate its bioavailability. When you take it on a regular basis, CBD—being fat soluble like other cannabinoids—gathers in your adipose tissue where your endocannabinoid system can theoretically utilize it on an ongoing basis.
Sublingual CBD goes under the tongue for absorption via the mucosal membranes in the mouth, which are highly permeable. From there, it bypasses the portal vein—the passage that leads from the digestive tract to the liver—and heads straight for the blood. And then whatever’s left over and not absorbed sublingually gets swallowed and makes it into the digestive tract, so nothing’s wasted.
You have several sublingual options….
Tinctures: Little dropper bottles.
Sprays: AKA oromucosal spray; think CBD-infused Binaca (anyone remember Binaca?).
Lozenges: CBD lozenges that slowly dissolve in your mouth and enter through the mucosa.
The longer you let the CBD sit in your mouth, the more you’ll absorb. 60-90 seconds appears to be the most commonly recommended period of time.
The original way to get CBD, inhaling CBD, is the fastest-acting and the most intense (with intensity meaning “effectiveness,” not “this will get you messed up, man,” since CBD is not psychoactive). The vapor or smoke enters the lungs, whose alveoli act as a direct conduit to the bloodstream. Inhalation is also the most legally precarious (depending on where you live) because many inhalation CBD products also contain THC, which remains illegal in most places.
You can smoke cannabis bred to be very high in CBD and low in THC, but there will always be some THC present. You couldn’t exactly call this non-psychoactive (or legal in most places) either due to the THC.
There’s also CBD-only vape juice/E-liquid that you can vaporize and inhale.
It’s certainly effective, though if you’re going for efficiency it’s not “optimal.” Your lungs can’t absorb all the CBD in the smoke or vapor; a significant portion is exhaled and lost to the atmosphere. Plus, there’s the whole fact that filling your lungs with smoke is a major stressor. Vapor might be safer, but I’m skeptical.
Like other cannabinoids, the CBD molecule is highly hydrophobic and thus cannot pass through the aqueous layer of the skin to reach general circulation. However, if you lather enough of it on to an isolated patch of injured rat skin, it can interact with peripheral cannabinoid receptors that reduce pain and inflammation at a local level. This hasn’t been confirmed in live humans, but anecdotal reports are positive.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t use CBD myself (though I’m not opposed to it and am open to incorporating it in the future if it proves to be uniquely helpful). As a result, I don’t have any strong personally motivated opinion about specific products. What I can give is my objective take on the available evidence, which is fairly light and preliminary:
The best-studied CBD administration methods are oral and sublingual. The majority of human studies have utilized those two routes. There are quite a few positive studies on smoked or inhaled CBD, too, but those often include THC and fail to isolate CBD. If you’re only interested in CBD and not in THC (or it’s illegal where you live), those studies probably don’t apply to you.
In the large set of case studies that found CBD helped patients improve their sleep, the subjects took CBD capsules.
In a study on CBD and pain, the subjects used an oromucosal spray.
In epilepsy patients, oral CBD capsules were incredibly effective.
For general use, whether it’s for anxiety, inflammation, pain, or “general wellness,” oral and/or sublingual use seems to be the real ticket. You know how much you’re consuming. You get a long lasting, fairly fast-acting duration of action. You get the quick absorption into the bloodstream of inhaled CBD without losing any due to exhalation. And if you don’t absorb it all through your oral mucous membranes, you’ll simply swallow and digest the rest. Nothing is lost.
What about you, folks? I know there are some experienced CBD users out there reading this. What’s your favorite method of administration, and why?
Take care everyone.
Taylor L, Crockett J, Tayo B, Morrison G. A Phase 1, Open-Label, Parallel-Group, Single-Dose Trial of the Pharmacokinetics and Safety of Cannabidiol (CBD) in Subjects With Mild to Severe Hepatic Impairment. J Clin Pharmacol. 2019;
Lattanzi S, Brigo F, Trinka E, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Cannabidiol in Epilepsy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Drugs. 2018;78(17):1791-1804.
Richardson JD, Kilo S, Hargreaves KM. Cannabinoids reduce hyperalgesia and inflammation via interaction with peripheral CB1 receptors. Pain. 1998;75(1):111-9.