CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound that is primarily found in the leaves and the flowers of the hemp plant. It’s just one of the array of powerful cannabinoids found in hemp. It’s known for it’s use by people across the world!
When we discuss the topic of cannabis-based remedies, what most often comes to mind are the two main cannabinoids THC and CBD. Most consumers are not aware that the human body naturally produces its own cannabinoids (called endogenous cannabinoids), and our bodies even have their own system for processing these cannabinoids.
This system is known as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). It’s a major neurotransmitting network that helps achieve homeostasis; which means maintaining a stable internal environment for optimal health and healing. The ECS is made up of receptors established throughout our brain, central nervous system, peripheral organs and immune system.
The ECS is activated both by endocannabinoids (those produced naturally in your body) and phytocannabinoids (those produced by cannabis plants). Cannabinoids are meant to fit like a lock and key into receptor sites, once a receptor is activated it signals a downstream chain of biological responses.
During a study in the 1990s (Matsuda et al., 1990), researchers were attempting to understand just how cannabinoids acted on the body. What they discovered was the first receptor of the endocannabinoid system; the CB1 receptor. It is the most abundant receptor found throughout the mammalian brain, and is also found in lower concentrations throughout peripheral tissues.
The second cannabinoid receptor was discovered in 1993 (Munro et al., 1993) and was termed the CB2 receptor. CB2 receptors are mainly found in peripheral organs and the immune system, while in much lower concentrations throughout the brain.
Upon the discovery of the first endocannabinoid receptor, scientists were forced to ask the question “If our bodies possess such a receptor, do we naturally produce a cannabinoid that fits this receptor as well?” This sparked the discovery of Anandamide or AEA, and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG, our bodies natural endocannabinoids.
Anandamide – stemming from the word Ananda, meaning “joy” or “bliss” – is the neurotransmitter which acts as our bodies natural version of THC, yet has a much shorter effect in the body than THC.
Anandamide acts on both CB1 and CB2 receptors and is chiefly responsible for our feelings of “happiness” – however, it also plays a role in memory, motivation, movement control, appetite, and pain perception.
Our bodies produce an enzyme called FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) which actively breaks down anandamide; meaning any excess that is not immediately used by our receptors is destroyed. This is where CBD becomes truly interesting because it inhibits this breakdown of anandamide – in other words – CBD promotes our bodies to benefit from their own endocannabinoids.
THC has a strong binding affinity for CB1 receptors that exist in high numbers throughout the brain and central nervous system. CB1 receptors are responsible for mediating the psychoactive effects of THC.
CBD has a lower binding affinity for CB1 and CB2 receptors that exist in peripheral tissues, however, CBD offers most of its therapeutic benefits through indirect actions rather than binding to cannabinoid receptors.
One of the most important ways it acts indirectly is by inhibiting the FAAH enzyme from breaking down anandamide (our bodies natural endocannabinoid). This means anandamide can persist in the body longer, where it may continue regulating homeostasis and providing a boost to our mood.
Although we mentioned CBD has a low binding affinity for receptors in peripheral organs, it does act as an antagonist for CB1 receptors in the brain. This means it fights with THC to block the receptor, without activating the receptor itself. This is why we experience less psycho-activity from products containing a blend of THC and CBD, due to CBD’s ability to take over CB1 receptors and bump THC out.
These mechanisms can help explain how endocannabinoids work differently from traditional neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are synthesized by our bodies in advance and stored in vesicles – they are released from presynaptic cells, where they land on postsynaptic cells and cause a biological response.
Endocannabinoids, on the other hand, are components of our cellular membranes which we produce on demand – they are not stored in vesicles, and they travel in the opposite direction of traditional neurotransmitters. They first leave the postsynaptic cell and travel to the presynaptic cell, where axons are present that are responsible for releasing traditional neurotransmitters.
This allows cannabinoids in the postsynaptic cell to control the flow of neurotransmitters coming from the presynaptic cell, which is likely where CBD gains its reputation as a regulator for so many processes throughout the body.
With a better understanding of just how widespread and crucial the endocannabinoid system is to the human body, it is easier to see why CBD is reputed for having such a long list of use cases.