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As cannabidiol (CBD) grows in popularity, it’s more widely known that the compound comes from the marijuana and hemp plants—both of which are in the cannabis family. What’s less known is that there are, in fact, non-cannabis sources of CBD, and in recent years a few researchers and companies have been working hard to make products from those sources.
Despite the 2018 Farm Bill legalization of hemp cultivation and consumption, there remains something of a stigmatization of hemp-derived products simply due to their proximity to cannabis and the fraught legal cannabis battle. While CBD has gained significant traction and understanding in the public eye, it’s possible that non-cannabis-derived CBD could help further destigmatize the compound and bring its beneficial products to a wider audience.
CBD in hops
The biggest non-cannabis source of CBD that has been discovered comes from the Humulus genus of plants in the Cannabaceae family, also known as hops. But not the hops you’re thinking of. When most people hear “hops,” they think of the hopes used to make beer, which come from the Humulus lupulus species. That species has a cousin called Humulus yunnanensis, and that’s the hops plant in question.
Humulus yunnanensis, commonly called the Yunnan hop, is native to the Yunnan province in southern China along the India border. The Yunnan hop doesn’t naturally have cannabinoids in its chemical makeup, however, over the years the hops plant cross-pollinated with cannabis plants in the region, creating strains of Humulus yunnanensis that do have significant amounts of terpenes and cannabinoids, including CBD.
In 2017, Dr. Bomi Joseph, Founder and Director of the California-based wellness company Peak Health, announced that after discovering and studying the high CBD content in the Yunnan hop, the company started to cross-breed the high-CBD Humulus strains with each other to generate a strain with an even greater concentration of the CBD compound. What came from that was a strain, dubbed the Kriya™ brand Humulus plant, with an 18 percent CBD concentration—similar to that of cannabis plants. They extracted CBD from this strain and created the world’s first non-cannabis-derived CBD product, ImmunAG.
Importantly, they found that the hops-based CBD product has potentially greater bioavailability and bioactivity than CBD from cannabis and hemp. When Peak Health tested ImmunAG’s efficacy in helping to reduce the calcification of certain heart cells that leads to stroke and heart disease—something cannabis-derived CBD has been used to do—ImmunAG was found to be more effective, regardless of the concentration of CBD. What this means on a macro level is that hops-derived CBD could possibly give you more bang for your buck—you wouldn’t need as much of it to get the same benefits as you would for a larger dose of cannabis-derived CBD.
The fact that ImmunAG has been so successful also means something big for the broader industry: Hops aren’t illegal anywhere, so hops-derived CBD’s proven success could open doors for the market in big ways. Places where cannabis and hemp are still either illegal or suspect by certain sectors of the public could benefit from the completely non-fraught nature of hops growing, thereby benefiting from increased CBD product availability as well.
Yeast does not have any cannabinoid compounds on its own. However, it can produce them if its DNA is manipulated correctly. In fact, it can produce CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as other cannabinoids altogether, and all it takes is some sugar—and scientists. To get cannabinoids at all, the precursor molecules that comprise them must be present, followed by the enzymes that convert those molecules into cannabinoids. Adding sugar to yeast brings both of those things—and it costs far less and has a much lower environmental impact than growing plants, no matter the variety. Currently, Librede, a California-based synthetic biology company, holds patents and has received federal funding for the biosynthesis of the cannabinoids THC, CBD, and cannabigerol (CBG) in yeast. Like hops cultivation, if yeast-derived cannabinoids prove effective, this could also provide another less legally charged and socially confusing avenue for CBD products to reach a bigger population.
Other areas of potential
Hops and yeast aren’t the only potential sources of compounds similar to cannabinoids. Echinacea, a favorite in the health sphere, has lots of cannabimimetic N-alcylethanolamine and N-alkylamide compounds, which react with our body’s cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system and help regulate homeostasis. Cacao, too, interacts with the endocannabinoid system, but not through cannabinoid-like compounds of its own. Rather, it deactivates fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) enzymes, which break down one of the most significant cannabinoids, anandamide (known as the “bliss molecule”). By deactivating its breakdown, cacao helps allow more anandamide to stay and build up in our system, keeping us feeling better for longer.
While there are scientists and others in the industry who have given pushback and expressed skepticism about both hops and yeast-derived CBD options, the emergence of science and products in the space have gotten significant attention and are certainly worth watching.