CBD oil is becoming increasingly used throughout the western world as a medicine to help treat a huge number of conditions, from psoriasis to even Parkinson’s disease.
By extracting the important CBD from the cannabis plant, CBD oil manufacturers can concentrate the isolated chemical and suspend it in inert oil, allowing for easy and convenient use.
But… How is it actually made?
You can generally imagine the production process of most of the things you put in your body (cheese, eggs, vegetables) but what about CBD oil?
Is it a safe process? Is it natural?
Why Would You Want to Extract CBD?
Well, first of all you need to understand why people extract CBD at all, as well as what CBD actually is.
CBD is one of the cannabinoids found within the cannabis plant. These compounds are unique to this type of vegetation, having evolved over millennia for the purpose of stopping animals eating the plants.
Cannabinoids interact with a health system within all mammals called the endocannabinoid system. When any cannabinoids are introduced to your body, they begin to interact with this system, triggering the CB1 and CB2 receptors, both of which have different effects.
Principally, when we administer CBD oil we are looking for its healing properties, as it helps encourage our body’s normal healing processes to function better. For instance, we know that CBD helps to fight off inflammation, as discovered in the famous study by Carrier et al. Thanks to this study, among others, we know that CBD encourages the body to stop inflaming an area that doesn’t need it, lessening pain and distress that would be normally suffered.
As amazing as CBD may be to help medical conditions, the question remains as to how you actually get it in your system.
It occurs naturally in the cannabis plant, but smoking or imbibing that plant comes with its own problems – CBD isn’t the only cannabinoid in cannabis.
THC, the infamous cannabinoid that gets you high, exists in cannabis plants at about ten times the rate of CBD. This means that, if you were to smoke cannabis for the purpose of getting CBD, you’d also be subjecting yourself to THC and its psychoactive properties.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing – there have been no recorded deaths due to THC or CBD overdose in history – but it isn’t entirely desirable either.
Leaving aside the illegality of THC in many parts of the world, it just isn’t practical to be high all of the time; sometimes you just want to take your medicine and get on with your day.
That is the very reason we extract CBD and administer it as an oil – you don’t always want THC or other cannabinoids in your system at any given time.
Now that we understand why the industry for CBD oil exists, how is it made? What is the process?
The CBD Extraction Process
CBD needs to be extracted from the cannabis plant so as to best access its medicinal properties, without having to deal with any of the plant impurities or THC that comes bundled up with the plant.
The process for removing CBD from the plant is actually quite simple and surprisingly un-chemical; you’d normally expect something like this to be industrial and disturbing, but CBD extraction is, in fact, an easy process.
CBD is extracted using CO2; however, there are generally two varieties of this extraction that are used: supercritical and subcritical.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction
Supercritical refers to the temperature and pressure to which the CO2 is heated.
When it is heated to over 31.1˚C, carbon dioxide enters into what is known as a supercritical state.
This means that it exists as both a solid and a liquid, maintaining properties of both states. If this sounds a bit too much like your physics lessons in high school, stick with it, because it gets even stranger. When CO2 is heated to a supercritical state, it is able to seep in-between materials like liquid, but still carry itself and move like a solid. This makes it excellent at dissolving other materials, as it can pass through it and lift particular compounds from what it passes through, all while leaving behind undesirables.
We generally call a chemical in this state a solvent, and it’s incredibly useful at extracting compounds from other materials.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction Process
The actual process of extracting CBD from cannabis is very simple. You put the cannabis plant material in an extraction chamber – essentially a sealed chamber with an appropriate air flow – and flood it with supercritical CO2.
The supercritical CO2 seeps into the plant matter, diffusing the CBD from the plant. You can actually control what compounds you want taken from the plant based on what temperature you superheat the CO2 to.
This supercritical CO2 then passes into a diffusion chamber, which releases the CBD into inert oil and alcohol solution. This same CO2 is then released and returned back into the system.
This means that the supercritical CO2 extraction method for CBD is an entirely closed system, only requiring new cannabis and the energy to power the flow of CO2.
What makes it even more environmentally friendly is the fact that the remaining cannabis can be repurposed.
This CBD-less cannabis can now be used to make THC oil or other THC products, or even sold as a textile to use in fabric or rope making.
As the cannabis market is primarily run and funded by lovers of the plant, you can expect a great deal of it to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
Alongside being environmentally friendly, supercritical CO2 extraction is extremely effective at maintaining efficiency, as evidenced in a study published by Laura Rovetto and Niccolo Aieta in the Journal of Supercritical Fluids. In the study, supercritical CO2 extraction was found to extract upwards of 92% of the total CBD product in a plant.
However, there is an issue with using supercritical CO2, and that is that it unfortunately does carry with it some compounds from the cannabis plant that you don’t want in your CBD oil.
To combat this, manufacturers use a process known as “winterization”.
Winterization of CBD Oil
Winterization is the process of steeping the diffused CBD that you just extracted in alcohol.
Once the alcohol solution has completely taken all the CBD from the supercritical CO2, the solution is then frozen to just below freezing. When this happens, the unwanted chemicals that the CO2 extracted – such as chlorophyll – are stuck in the alcohol solution, whereas the desired CBD remains in the inert oil.
Using this process, CBD is further filtered, allowing the finished product to avoid unwanted fatty substances or plant chemicals.
It’s incredibly important not to skip this step, as many countries expressly forbid the sale of cannabis products that contain above 0.2% THC within them. Through winterization, not only is the CBD oil made safe to consume, it is also protected legally. After all, not everyone wants to get high every single time they want to medicate themselves.
Interestingly enough, this is actually the same process used in brandy or wine making to concentrate the alcohol – as alcohol has a lower freezing temperature than other substances, you can actually remove water and unwanted chemicals while concentrating the taste and alcoholic content of a beverage; it’s basically the same principle.
If you don’t want to have to do this, you can instead use an alternate method of CBD extraction, known as subcritical.
Subcritical CO2 Extraction
As the name might imply, subcritical CO2 extraction is when you don’t superheat the CO2 to a supercritical state. Instead, you allow the CO2 to diffuse the CBD and carry with it a large number of the cannabinoids and other compounds within the plant matter.
When you use subcritical extraction, you are left with thick, almost molasses-like syrup that contains a great deal of compounds from the cannabis plant.
The reason you’d do this is if you want to try and create distilled marijuana oils with both THC and CBD, or if you’re looking to further refine the oil into purer CBD oil using a different method.
Some producers swear by the health benefits of terpenes that winterization removes, so by using subcritical extraction, these manufacturers are able to more carefully control which compounds they want to purify out of their final solution.
You can actually buy unpurified CBD oils with a variety of other compounds mixed in, but it is far better to look for pure CBD oil; this ensures you only get the dosage exactly as you need it, with no unintended side effects linked with regular dosing of chlorophyll or THC.
The Round Up
Despite its clinical appearance in the bottle, as well as what you might have heard from naysayers, the process of extracting CBD and suspending it in inert oil is surprisingly simplistic and environmentally friendly.
It’s always important to know what you’re putting into your body and a huge part of that is knowing how and why it was created.
Now you can enjoy your CBD oil with the full knowledge of where it comes from, especially that it’s an environmentally, reusable process.
Just keep an eye on your CBD oil and make sure it doesn’t have any THC in it!
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