CBD, more formally known as cannabidiol, is everywhere. Given the incredible enthusiasm, you would never guess that CBD is not exactly legal, leaving CBD purveyors in a legal grey area. This lack of federal oversight has created a lot of wiggle room for companies seeking an edge or niche in an increasingly crowded and competitive space. One such niche is the very sci-fi sounding name nano (or water-soluble) CBD, touted as being more effective and bioavailable (the degree to which a nutrient is available for the body to use) than other formulations. CBD is non-intoxicating and reported to ease a wide range of conditions, and consumers are flocking to the cannabinoid to help relieve chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, and even skin conditions like psoriasis and acne. Even restaurants and cafes are jumping in on this wellness trend, adding it to smoothies or mocktails for a few extra bucks, while chefs are adding CBD to their menus (though officials in cities like New York are cracking down on the practice). Even mainstream stores like Walgreens and CVS are jumping on the bandwagon, stocking their shelves with CBD products.
But nano CBD exists in a world with such a confounding range of CBD products available that can be found in the oddest of places — like the neighborhood bodega, alongside the condoms and Five Hour Energy packets — it begs the question: Is nano CBD a genuine innovation, or a gimmick to help companies differentiate themselves from the pack? The technology used in Nano CBD isn't new. Dr. Itzhak Kurek, Ph.D., is the co-founder and CEO of Cannformatics, a Northern California biotech company using saliva metabolomics technology to personalize medical cannabis treatment. Weedmaps spoke with Kurek to learn more about nanoparticles and the science behind them. Kurek begins by noting that nano-sized delivery technologies are not unique to CBD and are widely used by pharmaceutical companies to ensure bioavailability. “Nano CBD is a CBD molecule coated with very small particles, such as liposomes or lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), that stabilize the CBD and can move in our blood faster than 'naked' CBD, to effectively reach the target,” he explained. Kurek adds, “Nano CBD is a CBD molecule packaged in nano-carriers that are the size of about 100 nanometers — or one-billionth of a meter — which allows the “package” to stay in the body for a longer time and to slowly release the intact CBD in the targeted tissue.” To illustrate his point, he mentions a 2017 study that reported a 600% increase in bioavailability of oral Nano CBD compared to CBD in a rat model. What this means is that, theoretically, a person who consumes nano CBD as opposed to regular CBD may feel the effects more quickly. Dr. Mary Clifton, an NYC-based MD specializing in internal medicine, is also a CBD and cannabis expert and has worked with medical marijuana patients for more than 20 years in Michigan and New York State respectively. Clifton says that she remains undecided about nanotechnology, but she says that some of her patients are enthusiastic about the formulations. “A number of my patients swear by the use of nanotechnology to make their CBD more effective,” she said. However, she notes that the human data on CBD nanotechnology is pretty much nonexistent, though cellular data shows promise. Like any trend, nano CBD has its skeptics. Project CBD is a California-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting and publicizing research into the medical uses of CBD and other components of the cannabis plant. Their Chief Science Writer, Adrian Devit-Lee, is somewhat skeptical of nano CBD formulations. He agrees with Kurek that the nanoemulsion theoretically makes CBD easier for the body to absorb, but that it doesn't mean it is “practically” easier to absorb. Devit-Lee zeroes in on how people consume cannabis compounds generally as potentially altering its bioavailability regardless of formulation. “The way the problem [with nanoemulsion] is often framed is ironic because it's framed around potency,” he said. “When you eat CBD, if you take it first thing in the morning before food, you might absorb 3-6 percent. If you take it with a fatty food, you might absorb more of it.” Acknowledging that the onset of nanoparticles takes about half as long as regular CBD, he also notes that the molecule spends about half as much time in your system. “Practically speaking, is that much different than taking a stronger dose? I don't know that consumers would find it [nano CBD] much different.” And this is assuming that the CBD product in the bottle is exactly what's reported on the label, something that some CBD companies are wont to do. In 2019, the FDA issued several warning letters to CBD firms for products that did not contain the amount of CBD they purported to contain, and for using language that suggested CBD could cure, treat, or prevent disease, a big FDA no-no. Another area of concern lies in the safety of nanoparticles — when particles are made smaller, there may be unintended consequences. The increased use of nanotechnology in biomedicine, agriculture, and consumer products has led to the rise of nanotoxicology, the study of how engineered nano devices and structures may affect people. In reporting an explainer on weed wine for Weedmaps News, Josh Lizotte, founder and CEO of Rebel Coast, cautioned against the process of using nanoemulsions in cannabis-infused wine because “we don't know the health effects of nanotechnology, and how such small particles [interact with] the body.” To nano or not? Corona, California-based CBD company CBD Living utilizes nanotechnology for their flagship product, CBD Living Water, as well as topicals, gummies, and others. Chief Operating Officer Sean McDonald said that the company decided to utilize nanoemulsions because of its reported ability to increase bioavailability and speed up the absorption rate. And the customers, he said, feel better, quicker. A challenge with cannabinoids generally — regardless of how they're processed — is cannabinoid degradation. Once cannabis is harvested it begins the degradation process, meaning that the potency of the product, whether it is water or an edible, will decline. Many factors contribute to this process, but the top four are UV light, airflow, humidity, and temperature. Though most CBD products come in packages designed to keep out light, the simple act of opening and closing the container will reduce its efficacy. McDonald says that the nanoemulsion process itself insulates their products from degradation — though it should be noted the research backing this is scant — and all their packaging, with the exception of water, is opaque to keep out light. But clear CBD water bottles that could sit on store shelves for weeks or even months under the blazing lights of a grocery store aisle might be CBD-free by the time they're purchased and consumed. Devit-Lee also notes that every state has different testing requirements, and each lab has a different formulation for detecting drugs. In other words, just because it says something on the label doesn't make it so. “If you have a good product that has some terpenes that help with absorption and with medicinal effects — if it's a good quality product in general you don't need to do this nanoformulation. But if you have bad quality hemp products, maybe [nano] can help them stand out,” he added. The bottom line is that there just isn't much research for a persuasive argument either way. The only thing consumers can really do is to shop thoughtfully for CBD — nano or not — and buy from U.S. companies that can easily show you their third-party lab results and certificate of analysis.