CBD Isolate vs. Full-Spectrum: Which is the Best CBD?

by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC | Reviewed by Advisory Board

CBD isolate vs. full spectrum

CBD Isolate vs. Full-Spectrum: Which is the Best CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is only one of over 120 known cannabinoids found in the Cannabis plant genus. Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica have been used for thousands of years to treat neuropathy, chronic pain, and inflammation [1]. 

Fast forward to today — new studies of Cannabis are published on a near-weekly basis, helping us further understand the therapeutic properties of the plant's constituents. The two Cannabis compounds that stand out are Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 

While THC has generally garnered the lion's share of attention from researchers, CBD is gaining massive amounts of interest among the general population and the medical community. Since CBD doesn't induce the same psychoactive/intoxicating effects as THC, it's being marketed as a "non-psychoactive cannabinoid." 

However, that's a bit misleading because most CBD companies also claim that CBD isolate helps reduce anxiety and stress, both of which imply that cannabidiol is indeed psychoactive. (Think about it: where does anxiety stem from?) Perhaps this is just terminology being spun in a cleverly deceptive way to attract consumers.

So, what is CBD isolate? How does it differ from full-spectrum CBD? Is CBD the panacea for all that ails us, or is this another case of the hype outpacing the evidence? Read on and we'll get you up to speed on this trending health niche and determine which form of CBD is best.

*Note: This article is for information purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.

Hemp vs. Marijuana 

Let's start by clarifying some of the confusing and ambiguous jargon you'll come across in the world of cannabidiol products, specifically terms like "hemp-derived CBD, "pure CBD," " CBD isolate powder," and "full-spectrum CBD." The first distinction to be made is that "marijuana" and "hemp" are not the same.

The marijuana plant and the hemp plant belong to the same genus (Cannabis); however, they are technically different due to their unique cultivation practices. In other words, hemp and marijuana ("weed") are like siblings, but not twins.

Both of these plants contain an array of phytocannabinoids, which are the primary medicinal compounds in Cannabis. While the whole spectrum of phytocannabinoids in Cannabis has seemingly unparalleled applications and benefits in alternative medicine, widespread adoption is hindered due to the psychoactive effects of THC. (Again, CBD is psychoactive too, just not in the same way as THC.) 

Marijuana contains both CBD and THC (usually a much higher percentage of the latter than the former). The THC content of marijuana is responsible for making users feel “high.”

On the other hand, the hemp plant contains only traces of THC (less than 0.3% to meet legal guidelines). Also, during processing, CBD isolate products are often further purified to remove as much THC as possible. 

It is important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently regulate CBD products. There have been reports of CBD products containing higher THC content than what is legal (i.e.,>0.3%).

Nevertheless, "hemp CBD" and "THC-free" are catchy terms you'll see emblazoned on many product labels. In reality, no CBD isolate product has absolutely zero THC since quantification methods can only detect a finite amount of Cannabis compounds.

But legally, any CBD products that meet the 0.3% or less THC concentration standard can claim "THC-free." It's comparable to food products that contain than 0.4 grams of sugar per serving being labeled as "sugar-free."

Many high-quality CBD companies utilize third-party lab testing to ensure both the CBD and THC content matches the amount listed on the label. In most cases, these reports are available to you as a consumer. (When in doubt, email the company to verify. If they can't provide proof that their CBD is third-party lab tested, they don't deserve your money.)

Types of CBD Products

CBD products come in many forms, including edibles such as CBD oil, gummies, powder, and capsules, as well as in topical creams, skin patches, and vape products. 

CBD isolate products are pure CBD — all other cannabinoids are removed. They are the purest form of CBD. The downside is CBD isolate does not produce the proverbial "entourage effect" like broad- and full-spectrum CBD products do (we will discuss this effect in more detail later).

Full-spectrum CBD includes several other compounds found in the hemp plant, including terpenes, flavonoids, and minor cannabinoids. As such, full-spectrum CBD contains traces of THC.

Broad-spectrum CBD is similar to full-spectrum in that it includes other Cannabis constituents, sans THC, and ostensibly produces the entourage effect.

CBD Isolate Powder: The Purest Form of CBD

CBD isolate powder is typically made via supercritical CO2 extraction of organic hemp flowers/leaves/stalks; this is the best process for isolating cannabidiol and eliminating THC/minor cannabinoids found in hemp [2].

The resulting CBD isolate powder, which is lipid-soluble, can then be formulated in gummies, capsules, topicals, tinctures, and vapes for end-consumer products. Hence, CBD isolate powder is the purest form of CBD on the market (if you can find it).

CBD isolate appears to have vast and versatile therapeutic properties, especially for treating mood disorders, easing aches/pain, reducing inflammation, and relieving stress [3]. Yet, there's much we don't know about how CBD isolate works and the dosages necessary to confer significant health benefits. 

CBD putatively stimulates the body's innate healing capacities by signaling the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to produce more endogenous cannabinoids and modulating specific ECS receptors [4]. It remains unclear whether CBD isolate interacts directly with each subtype of endocannabinoid receptor as THC does or if it serves as a molecular liaison for endocannabinoids like 2-Arachidonoylglycerol and anandamide.

In any case, CBD isolate is suggested to have myriad benefits, including [5]:

  • Anti-inflammatory benefits and free radical scavenging
  • Neuroprotective properties
  • Preventing seizures
  • Reducing anxiety and stress
  • Supporting immune function
  • Promoting better sleep

CBD Isolate vs. Full-Spectrum CBD Products

If a product says it's a full-spectrum CBD oil, for example, that tells you it contains other plant compounds from hemp in addition to CBD isolate. "Pure CBD oil" is typically synonymous with "CBD isolate" and refers to products that are over 99% CBD content with near-zero THC or other phytocannabinoids. 

As such, you won't test positive on a drug test for marijuana if you use CBD isolate products (assuming the assay is for THC metabolites). Naturally, many consumers are quick to jump on the CBD isolate bandwagon, presuming it's the best way to have their cake and eat it, too. But the jury is still out as to whether pure CBD isolate provides the same degree of health benefits as full-spectrum CBD and medical marijuana.

Naturally, you might be wondering, "Does full-spectrum CBD oil contain THC?"

The short answer: Yes, it does. But...

Recall from earlier that hemp has meager amounts of THC (0.3% concentration or less). Thus, even though full-spectrum CBD oil contains THC, it's only in trace amounts, and the psychoactive effects will be imperceivable. 

However, using a full-spectrum CBD oil could make you test positive for marijuana if you use it routinely. THC and its metabolites accumulate in the body tissues, especially adipose, since it is a lipophilic compound. Therefore, if you're using a full-spectrum CBD oil that contains 0.3% of THC metabolites will gradually build up in your system over time and possibly get flagged on a drug test. 

That's one of the drawbacks of using full-spectrum CBD if you get tested for marijuana regularly. In such instances, pure CBD isolate is the prudent choice.

What Is Hemp-Derived CBD?

Hemp is a term used somewhat interchangeably with Cannabis, but the former more appropriately refers to "non-drug" varieties of Cannabis sativa. In other words, hemp contains minimal/trace amounts of THC.

Hemp seeds are a rich source of healthy fatty acids, fiber, protein, tocopherols, phytosterols, and small amounts of phytocannabinoids. In fact, hemp seed oil contains over 50% of its fatty acids as linoleic acid - the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid precursor of arachidonic acid, which subsequently serves as the precursor to 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

Thus, hemp is used in industrial applications, food, nutritional supplements, and for producing CBD oil. But there's ambiguity when companies are marketing hemp oil as synonymous with CBD oil; technically, hemp oil is more so a source of essential fatty acids than cannabinoids.

On the other hand, CBD oil is typically made from supercritical CO2 extraction of hemp flowers, leaves, and stalks, which have a higher concentration of CBD. 

Benefits of Full-Spectrum CBD Products

Full-spectrum CBD, also sometimes called whole-plant CBD or full-spectrum hemp oil, refers to products that contain CBD plus other cannabis-derived phytochemicals. The term "full-spectrum" means the hemp is minimally refined and contains other "minor" phytocannabinoids that have a synergistic effect with CBD, thereby promoting further therapeutic benefits that pure CBD isolate may lack. 

The notable phytocannabinoids in full-spectrum CBD oil are:

  • Cannabidiol (CBD) 
  • Cannabigerol (CBG)
  • Cannabichromene (CBC) 
  • Cannabinol (CBN) 
  • Cannabidivarin (CBDV)
  • Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV)
  • Δ9 -Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) 

Recent in vitro and in vivo studies suggest that the medley of phytocannabinoids in hemp/Cannabis work in concert to bolster the ECS in a manner not seen when consuming these compounds in isolation [6]. Scientists have coined this as the "entourage effect" of phytocannabinoids.

For example, one study analyzed the effects of five different Cannabis extracts on seizures in mice [7]. Each extract had identical amounts of CBD but varying amounts of non-CBD phytocannabinoids. The results showed that the extracts significantly outperformed the control group, but the magnitude of benefits among the extracts varied drastically. This suggests that the "other" phytocannabinoids play a much more integral role than we previously thought. 

In addition to phytocannabinoids, the typical Cannabis/hemp plant contains over 200 different terpenes that collectively make up the most diverse group of plant chemicals known to man (over 20,000 have been characterized to date) [8]. In fact, the terpenes in Cannabis, such as humulene and caryophyllene, are responsible for the distinct aroma of marijuana. (To give you an idea of how pungent terpenes are, they make up less than 1% of the total constituents in Cannabis.)

Is CBD Legal?

Today, hemp-derived CBD products are federally legal in all 50 states of America. However, this has not always been the case.

For decades, the law did not differentiate the industrial hemp plant from the marijuana plant, the latter being a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the United States since 1970.

The Hemp Farming Bill of 2018 clearly defined the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp. This bill made farming and shipping industrial hemp (which must contain less than 0.3% THC) lawful throughout the United States. It also made the production, sale, and use of all hemp-derived products, including CBD, legal.

Since the change in legal status, CBD products have exploded in popularity; the CBD industry is estimated to be worth 16 billion dollars by 2024.

Are CBD Products Safe?

In a word: Yes. Our current understanding of CBD isolate is that it primarily encourages the ECS to produce more endocannabinoids and upregulates cannabinoid receptors (which is quite distinct from THC's mechanism of action). CBD also interacts with 5-HT (serotonin) receptors in the brain, explaining its alleged anxiolytic and mood-stabilizing effects [9]. 

Both THC and CBD have exceptional safety profiles. For example, recent meta-analyses that compiled data from numerous human studies on cannabidiol and medical marijuana found that CBD and THC are virtually non-toxic and rarely produce severe side effects, even in superfluous doses [10, 11]. 

Moreover, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD and hemp oil from their list of banned substances. Athletes (and those in the workforce) won't have to worry about failing a drug test if they're using pure CBD isolate.

Keep This in Mind When Shopping for CBD Products

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to "What's the best CBD?" since CBD isolate and full-spectrum CBD have unique benefits and applications. In the coming years, research will continue to elucidate what role(s) the lesser-known phytocannabinoids in the Cannabis plant play and how they improve our well-being.

The advantage of full-spectrum CBD is that it provides a synergistic ensemble of phytocannabinoids, terpenes, and other phytochemicals. The drawback is that, despite the minimal amounts of THC in full-spectrum CBD, it could eventually raise a red flag on a drug test if you ingest it regularly in large doses. The good news is that CBD isolate may provide comparable benefits without causing users to fail a drug test.

Regardless if you use CBD isolate or full-spectrum CBD, trial and error will be necessary. Anecdotally, some people don't notice much benefit from CBD products, whereas others can't speak highly enough of their rejuvenating effects.

Ultimately, you should try CBD products that fit your lifestyle. Just remember to verify that the CBD you're purchasing has been lab-tested (ideally by a third party). The certificate of analysis (COA) will give you objective insights into the potency, purity, and quality of the product.




Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC
Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC

Author

Elliot holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Minnesota, as well as being a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC). He is currently pursuing a Master's of Science in Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology at Michigan State University. Elliot began freelance writing circa 2012 and has since written 100s of articles and several eBooks pertaining to nutritional science, dietary supplements, exercise physiology, and health/wellness. Being a “science whiz,” he has a passion for helping people understand how nutrients (and other chemicals) and exercise work on a cellular and molecular level so they can make smarter choices about what they put in, and do with, their bodies. When Elliot is not busy writing or studying, you can find him pumping iron, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or perusing nutraceutical research.



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