We all want the best results from the supplements we take, and one of the most important factors in whether or not they can work best for us is if we can properly absorb them. But how could the absorption of hemp extracts, and cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD), be improved?
To see how CBD is absorbed, we must look at its chemical properties. CBD and other cannabinoids are fat soluble molecules1, meaning that they can mix with and travel through fats and oils, but not easily through water. This also means that in order for fat soluble molecules to be absorbed through the intestines, they must be surrounded by spheres of fatty acids with water soluble bile salts or proteins on the outside2. The contents of these, such as fatty acids, cholesterol and the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) are absorbed by the spheres dissolving into the membranes of the cells lining the intestines, as cell membranes are mostly fatty acids. After absorption, these reform into larger spheres called lipoproteins, which have proteins and water soluble phosphate “heads” on the outside, and then travel through the lymphatic vessels before entering the bloodstream. While absorption of fat soluble molecules such as cannabinoids may seem complicated, it can also allow for easier access into sites of action inside cells, as well as fatty tissues such as the brain and nerves3.
One rich source of fatty acids is hemp seeds4. Hemp seeds have an oil content that commonly falls between 25% and 35%, including the essential fatty acids which our bodies cannot produce themselves. The essential fatty acids are the omega-3 fat known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and the omega-6 fat linoleic acid (LA). Levels of these as a percentage of hemp seed oil’s content have been reported to be 12-25% and 50-70% respectively. The ratio of the essential fatty acids in hemp is considered to be the optimal ratio for human health, and does not promote a build-up of intermediates that could negatively affect fatty acid metabolism. The essential fatty acids are also anti-inflammatory like CBD, but by different mechanisms of action; therefore they may assist in some of its beneficial effects. Providing a source of fatty acids to transport cannabinoids may not be the only way that hemp seed oil could improve the availability of CBD. Soon after absorption, much of CBD is processed in the liver by an enzyme known as CYP3A43, which prepares it for excretion. LA and ALA, as well as EPA and DHA, which are produced from ALA, may inhibit CYP3A45, and therefore possibly increase the availability of CBD to the body.
Hemp seeds also contain protein at a level of 20-25%4, and other nutrients such as vitamin E. Protein is necessary to build tissue2 such as muscle and bone, as well as building molecules required for the body to function, for example digestive enzymes and cannabinoid receptors. Like CBD, vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, with the “alpha” form protecting fats in cell membranes and lipoproteins throughout the body, and the “gamma” form more able to protect the cells lining the bowels. CBD is not known to be produced in hemp seeds, and when it is detected in seeds, it is suspected to be from contamination by other parts of the plant. Some terpenoids, including myrcene and beta-caryophyllene, may also be present in hemp seed oil through contamination, and these may share some of CBD’s beneficial effects such as its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Overall, considering the properties of CBD and the contents of hemp seeds, it may be best to consume hemp seeds or their oil alongside cannabinoid-rich hemp extracts, although research specifically testing any added benefit of this is required to draw any conclusion.
2: Tortora, GJ & Derrickson, B, 2012, Principles of Anatomy & Physiology, 13th edn, Wiley.