Anxiety, pain, Alzheimer’s disease, seizures, even cancer—the list of things cannabidiol (CBD) is said to help with is long. And while we’ve heard anecdotal reports of CBD’s efficacy, rarely do we hear about just what it could be doing in the body to bring about these therapeutic benefits.
This is because the body’s relationship with CBD is complex: CBD isn’t just doing one thing to bring about all of these different benefits. The cannabinoid acts on our bodily systems in numerous ways—ways that we’re just beginning to understand.
We can’t have a discussion about how CBD works in the body without mentioning the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This is a network of receptors located throughout the body, and it’s what both cannabis and hemp work on to bring about therapeutic effects.
The ECS has three main components:
Anandamide and 2-AG attach to and activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors, respectively. By attaching to the receptors, these endocannabinoids are able to tell your brain to perform different tasks related to maintaining balance in the body.
THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, can also attach to the CB1 receptor. THC’s affinity for this receptor is what brings about the characteristic high you’d feel when consuming cannabis.
CBD on the other hand influences the ECS, but we still don’t fully understand how. It doesn’t attach to endocannabinoid receptors with the same gusto as THC does. Rather, CBD seems to bring about certain therapeutic effects by:
Anandamide and 2-AG are made on demand by the body. When they’re no longer needed, they’re broken down by the enzymes FAAH and MAGL, respectively. But when it comes to the breakdown of anandamide, CBD can disrupt this process, leading to elevated levels of anandamide in the brain.
Interestingly, newly diagnosed epileptic patients tend to have less anandamide in their brains than those who don’t have epilepsy. Research has also shown that the distribution and density of CB1 receptors in the brains of folks with epilepsy is different from those who don’t have this condition.
Although we still don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on, some researchers hypothesize that CBD’s ability to prevent the breakdown of anandamide could be one of the reasons why some people have success in using CBD to treat seizures.
Although adenosine isn’t traditionally thought of as being part of the endocannabinoid system, CBD performs a similar action on this molecule: It prevents it from being broken down by the body, leading to higher levels of adenosine in the brain.
Since adenosine and the receptors it attaches to are associated with anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety effects, this could be the reason why CBD can be beneficial for those with pain or mood disorders.
TRPV1, also called vanilloid receptor 1 or the capsaicin receptor, helps control our body temperature and influences how we feel pain. This receptor can be activated via physical and chemical cues, but it can also be activated by CBD as well as capsaicin, the molecule responsible for the spicy sensation of chili peppers.
A 2004 study on rats found that CBD behaves similarly to capsaicin. When we eat a chili pepper, capsaicin acts on the TRPV1 receptors in our brain cells, making us feel that burning sensation we associate with spicy foods.
With repeated exposures, these brain cells no longer signal that burning sensation to our brain when capsaicin attaches to TRPV1. This is perhaps why some people have a higher tolerance for spicy foods: Their TRPV1 receptors have become desensitized.
But capsaicin does more than make our mouth burn when we eat spicy foods. It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-seizure properties.
The researchers in this study think that CBD behaves in a similar way to capsaicin—except without giving that spicy sensation. Somehow CBD desensitizes TRPV1 receptors, reducing our pain response.
Another one of CBD’s unique properties is its ability to change the shape of certain receptors without attaching directly to them. By doing this, it’s able to enhance or inhibit how a receptor gives off a signal.
One of the best examples is CBD’s effect on the CB1 receptor. Somehow, CBD is able to change the shape of this receptor so that it weakens CB1’s ability to bind with THC. By doing this, CBD may decrease THC’s psychoactive effects. This is one of the reasons why some folks recommend taking some CBD if you’ve accidentally had too much THC.
CBD can also change the shape of certain gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors so that substances are more likely to bind to them. GABA receptors and the substances that bind to them are part of a network of interconnected brain cells that make up your body’s communication system.
Messages in the form of electrical signals are sent throughout this network, and GABA receptors play a key role in this communication. GABA receptors’ main role is to reduce excitability in nerve cells.
Put simply, once GABA receptors are activated, activity between and among brain cells is reduced. This slowdown has important implications for those with anxiety disorders and epilepsy, which can result because of overactivity in certain areas of the brain.
Research has shown that CBD can act on the serotonin system of receptors in addition to the ECS. Serotonin receptors control the release of many neurotransmitters, including the ones that attach to GABA receptors, and they play important roles in key neurological process like:
CBD can attach directly to certain serotonin receptors, possibly leading to anti-anxiety effects.
Research suggests that CBD also attaches to and influences a group of receptors known as peroxisome proliferator activated receptors, or PPARs. These receptors live on a cell’s nucleus and play important roles in cell division, which is why they’re important to the study of cancer.
Research on human lung cancer cells show that activation of this receptor by CBD can cause anti-proliferative effects and tumor shrinkage, though it’s important to remember that these studies are preliminary.
Other research also suggests CBD activation of PPARs can reduce amyloid-beta plaque buildup, a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease, and promote the growth of new brain cells.
Both of these actions could be why some people with cancer and neurodegenerative diseases notice benefits when taking CBD.
CBD can attach directly to serotonin receptors, TRPV1 receptors and PPARs. But when it comes to the receptor GPR55, it behaves differently: Instead of attaching to GPR55, CBD keeps other substances from binding to it.
In a small study involving mice, researchers found that CBD reduced seizure activity by binding to GPR55 receptors in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s often linked with epilepsy. Though this study was preliminary, it could explain why some epileptic children see such profound benefits when consuming CBD.
CBD’s ability to keep other substances from binding to GPR55 has huge applications in the realm of pharmacology: Turning on GPR55 is linked to both a spike in tumor activity as well as osteoporosis. So, something that prevents substances from binding to this receptor, like CBD, could have both an anti-tumor effect and promote bone health. However, the molecule’s capacity to do this hasn’t been tested yet.
When we look at all that we know about how CBD affects the body, it’s clear that we still have a lot more to learn. Anecdotal evidence suggests that CBD can help with myriad conditions, and it’s up to researchers to piece together how this versatile molecule affects the body as a whole.
As CBD’s benefits become more apparent, it’ll hopefully fund more research so that we can better understand how to harness CBD’s full therapeutic potential.
Photo credit: Cannabis Pictures
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