How Does CBD Work? Understanding the Endocannabinoid System

You’ve probably heard the hype about CBD oil – the non-psychoactive compound derived from the cannabis or hemp plant, that’s become a popular supplement for pain relief, mood regulation, and general wellness. Although CBD isn’t known to cure any condition, it does have proven pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, anti-seizure, anti-anxiety, and antioxidant properties. And with the legalization of industrial hemp and more clinical trials in the works, you can expect CBD’s popularity to continue to skyrocket. 

It might sound too good to be true, but there’s a great deal of solid scientific research that shows the complex ways CBD interacts with the body’s neurotransmitter systems, receptors, and enzymes. But how exactly does CBD work on the body, and what mechanisms lead to its effects?

The answer lies in a recently-discovered, but essential, component of human biology – the endocannabinoid system.

The Endocannabinoid System - A Revolutionary Discovery

In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists began to conduct research into the effects of cannabis on the human body. In the process of doing so, they were able to isolate numerous chemicals from the cannabis plant – phytocannabinoids, of which CBD is one. By studying their effects, they learned that the human body contains a network of biochemical pathways involved in manufacturing and utilizing the body’s own form of cannabinoids: endo-cannabinoids, which bear striking similarities to the phyto-cannabinoids produced by cannabis and other plants.

It sounds strange that our bodies make similar chemicals to the ones produced by a psychoactive plant, but it’s true. It’s now thought that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) evolved as many as 600 million years ago. We share this biological system with all kinds of other animals, including mammals, birds, and sea urchins (but not insects, which is why spiders can’t get high). The ECS is essential to proper functioning of many different physiological and neurological mechanisms, some of which are:

  • Pain
  • Appetite
  • Sensation
  • Inflammation
  • Thermoregulation
  • Mood
  • Energy
  • Metabolism
  • Stress response
  • Muscle control
  • Motivation and Reward

Endocannabinoids & Their Receptors

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers of the nervous system. (Two of the best-known neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine.)

Similarly, endo-cannabinoids (eCBs) are the messengers of the ECS, and are produced throughout your body. Just like the phyto-cannabinoids in plants, these neurotransmitters are made out of oil molecules (lipids). 

The two essential eCBs are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. 

Anandamide gets its name from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”. This molecule operates throughout the body and is involved with appetite and memory, among many other functions. It’s also been identified as the source of the “runner’s high” people experience during intense, extended exercise.

Unlike anandamide, the other endo-cannabinoid — 2-ArachidonoylGlycerol (2-AG) — doesn’t have a catchy name. However, recent scientific research suggests that 2-AG is just as important. 2-AG has been linked to emotional states, neurological protection (from problems like seizures), as well as to cardiovascular health. 

We have cannabinoid receptors throughout our bodies, and they affect a wide variety of our bodies’ functions. The two main endocannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2. These receptors are activated by both endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids. CB1 receptors, in particular, are essential for proper brain function. Depending on what region of the brain they are found in, they can regulate memory, mood, motor function, or the perception of pain. 

Causes and Effects of An Unbalanced Endocannabinoid System

“Stress” is so commonly perceived as negative that it’s hard to see it as beneficial in any way.

However the human stress response, and even acute anxiety, evolved to be useful – priming the mind and body for making quick, potentially life-saving decisions when faced with danger or pain. Problems arise when we’re stuck in “survival mode” with no way out, for long periods of time.

When exposed to stress, your body reduces levels of anandamide — triggering feelings of agitation and anxiety, which would help you make quick decisions when faced with an immediate threat. Simultaneously, your body increases levels of 2-AG, which minimizes your perception of pain and influences memory, to help you escape the situation and avoid similar situations in the future.

If stress becomes chronic, as it often does in modern life, your body must adapt to the fact that it cannot escape from the source of stress. Chronic stress and high 2-AG levels overstimulate CB1 receptors in the brain, so the brain compensates by decreasing its CB1 receptors.

In addition to lifestyle stressors like career and family pressure, a poor diet, genetic predisposition, overreliance on drugs like alcohol, and certain chronic illnesses can also lead to ECS imbalances. And since the ECS affects so many of your body’s natural functions, the result can be a whole suite of mental and physical symptoms that get in the way of living a happy, healthy life.

CBD’s Effects on the ECS

Since the endocannabinoid system is so complex, and its role in managing the body’s functions is so comprehensive, CBD has a number of effects throughout the body – and exciting potential for improving overall wellbeing.

Preventing Overstimulation & Intoxication

Studies indicate that CBD binds to CB1 at a different spot from where other cannabinoids normally bind to this receptor. This process leaves the binding site free but changes the shape of the receptor so that it doesn’t respond as readily.

Many disruptions to the endocannabinoid system actually stem from an overactive system. If your body struggles with the effects of constant anxiety or chronic pain, then your receptors could be overstimulated, and CBD may give your endocannabinoid system the break it needs.

Rebalancing eCB Levels

Studies indicate that CBD also increases your natural endocannabinoid levels. There are several reasons why CBD can cause this effect, but the strongest evidence suggests that CBD competes for necessary proteins with endocannabinoids — binding proteins that are responsible for breaking down these neurotransmitters. 

This process, where natural levels of a neurotransmitter are elevated because your body is less efficient at recycling them, is called reuptake inhibition – which might sound familiar to those who take SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), drugs commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety.

In short, CBD can modulate and balance the functioning of the endocannabinoid system, and the many processes it governs.

CBD’s Potential For Enhancing Health and Wellness

If you are trying to rebalance your endocannabinoid system, the recent legalization of cannabis and hemp products in many states and countries has made experimentation possible. However, because CB receptors control so many different aspects of your body’s systems, it isn’t possible to truly predict what reaction you’ll have without trying different dosages and methods of delivery.

Scientists are investigating ways to target specific cannabinoid receptors in localized areas of the body or brain without triggering the entire endocannabinoid system. This could be especially effective for people suffering from specific ECS disorders… but we’re not quite there yet. Holistic methods, like supplementing with CBD, may still provide relief for many.