CBG vs. CBD vs. THC: A Primer

A good way to understand CBG is to step back and take a look at the cannabis plant as a whole. The plant produces a number of cannabinoids, which are molecules in marijuana or hemp plants that act on the cannabinoid receptors — part of the endocannabinoid system — in the brain. You’ve probably heard of the two most common cannabinoids: THC and CBD.

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Chemically, CBG is the big brother of CBD and THC. “Cannabis plants make CBG, but usually the plant doesn’t stop there. CBG is just a brief way station on the way to the production of other cannabinoids, like THC and CBD,” explains Dr. Ethan Russo, Director of Research and Development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute. This is fine for growers who want to make products that appeal to people looking to get high on THC or those who want to jump on the CBD wellness hype.

But some cannabis advocates, like Heylo Cannabis’ founder and lead chemist Lo Friesen, have started to wonder if you could stop the cannabis plant’s development early in order to preserve a high percentage of CBG. Friesen and her Seattle-based team make cannabis extracts, and she believes chasing CBG could be a smart business move.

In order to grasp the potentials and limitations of CBG, it makes sense to take a closer look at its little brother, CBD. CBD has become extremely popular over the past few years. In fact, the industry is predicted to be worth nearly $1.8 billion by 2022, according to Statista. People swear by CBD because it’s a non-psychotropic cannabis byproduct, which means it doesn’t make you feel high. CBD is mostly derived from hemp and some research suggests that it provides relief for a number of conditions like epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain.

CBD research is still at a very early stage and mainly focused on laboratory tests and animal models, which means experts don’t fully know if CBD really works for treating medical conditions in humans.

CBD’s popularity also hinges on its low-risk nature. According to the World Health Organization, “CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential… To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.” (WHO has not yet released any statements about CBG, likely because it’s not yet popular enough to merit a mention.)

That said, CBD research is still at a very early stage and mainly focused on laboratory tests and animal models, which means experts don’t fully know if CBD really works for treating medical conditions in humans or if its effects are predominantly tied to the placebo effect.

“There is so much potential, which we are just beginning to realize, from the use of CBD and other cannabinoids, both in terms of medical use and for other, lifestyle-related issues,” says Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “We need to be careful as it is easy for the expectations, enthusiasm, and marketing claims to far outpace the actual scientific evidence, as we are seeing with CBD.”

The other big issue is that CBD products can vary widely in quality because they’re not regulated. CBD is incredibly accessible, particularly online. All 50 states have laws legalizing CBD in varying degrees of restriction, and despite CBD being a cannabis product, the federal government’s punishment policy for use of CBD remains a gray area.

The promise of CBG

CBG is in the same boat as CBD, but with even less research out on its efficacy and less availability. Still, advocates believe the substance could become a viable alternative treatment option for people with anxiety and chronic pain — perhaps even more so than THC and CBD.

“THC can draw you inward, and it can make anxiety worse. But CBG seems to mitigate that effect,” says Daniel Luebke, the Head of Marketing and Brand at Heylo Cannabis. Russo explains that early studies have highlighted CBG’s strong anti-anxiety effects, without being sedative and without the potential for addiction.

The final bonus is that CBG appears to have very few negative side effects, except increasing appetite.

“CBG binds to the cannabinoid receptors but with an affinity that is way lower than THC, so a person can take a large amount of it and not be intoxicated,” Russo says of early research on the topic. “But it displays a very strong anti-anxiety effect and it also has muscle relaxing effects, maybe even more than THC. Scientists believe that CBG binds to certain endocannabinoid receptors in the brain that mitigate anxiety and pain.

The final bonus is that CBG appears to have very few negative side effects, except increasing appetite.

Los cites several anecdotal stories of people who have used CBG to treat chronic pain issues, often rotating CBG with CBD and THC to make sure they don’t gain too much tolerance to any of the cannabinoids. He says these people have experienced ease in muscle tension and cramping, but without a high. For them, it’s been a total win-win.

Unfortunately, there aren’t yet solid scientific studies to back up these anecdotal wins — and it may be awhile before there’s any kind of evidence of CBG’s effects on humans. Some early animal research has shown that CBG can indeed be used to effectively manage pain. In one study, researchers found that CBG greatly benefitted cats with glaucoma by reducing eye pressure. In another study, CBG use alleviated neuroinflammation in mice. A 2013 study also found that CBG was effective for treating inflammatory bowel disease, and scientists are even looking at the substance’s ability to help manage neurodegeneration.

Other animal studies back Judy’s experience of using CBG to regulate anxiety, although they’re still not conducted in humans because of current bans on cannabis research. One 2006 study showed that the herb had antidepressant effects in mice, while another found that CBG had an analgesic effect on certain receptors, leading to anxiety reduction.

The hurdles

There are still many barriers when it comes to bringing CBG to the masses.

First, there’s the issue of regulation and research. Grinspoon says the only way to move the industry forward is by taking cannabis substances like CBD and CBG out of the DEA’s “Schedule 1” category, which prevents research. As of now, the FDA has only approved one CBD-based medication called Epidiolex, for children with epilepsy. In order to know if CBD and CBG work for the treatment of other conditions, there needs to be human studies. Russo notes that any future CBG research in humans will likely be done outside of the United States. “To my knowledge, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which does all of the cannabis research in the U.S., does not have any CBG in their arsenal right now,” he says.

As has happened in the CBD world, this lack of research leaves patients to do their own trials regarding dosage and delivery method, which they then report to organizations like Los’ VIMEA.“Desperate patients, and those who care for them, are trading information online and moving the science ahead,” Los says.

Second, there’s the problem of CBG quantity and quality. Most cannabis plants produce only small amounts of CBG, as they typically convert CBG into THC and CBD before they flower. This means there’s not a lot of CBG available for distribution. For consumers, CBG can be hard to find, even at dispensaries in states where the substance is legal. (In dispensaries, CBG is usually sold in products that combine THC or CBD with CBG.) Most patients struggle to find enough of the substance to dose themselves regularly. And even if you can find enough CBG, quality is still suspect.

There are still many barriers when it comes to bringing CBG to the masses. First, there’s the issue of regulation and research. Second, there’s the problem of CBG quantity and quality.

Friesen believes this will all change in the years to come. Some entrepreneurs, like David Heldreth, the Chief Science Officer of True Terpenes and CEO of Panacea Plant Sciences, are working to develop cannabis plants that will stop their development at CBG. If this process works, the plants could yield up to 100% of the secondary cannabinoid for interested chemists like Friesen. GW Pharmaceuticals also reportedly has a strain of plants that can produce pure CBG, which they are using to do research on the secondary cannabinoid.

“For us, it’s quality in and quality out,” Friesen says of her desire to work with sustainable growers who can offer cannabis products that demonstrate unique chemical makeups. For Friesen, extending offerings like CBG to people who aren’t cannabis users is both a smart business decision and a great way to educate the public on the benefits of medical marijuana use.

“Our goal is to offer a wide variety of diverse chemical profiles of cannabis products and to help spread research,” Friesen says. “I think the industry is shifting to treasure interesting genetics, and we’ll see heightened interest in products like CBG. The cannabis user is also evolving to focus on how this plant can help them get more out of their lives.”

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