Cannabis is the talk of the Internet these days as federal and state regulations change and it becomes more widely accepted and less of a taboo topic. Once upon a time not too long ago, all people thought of when hearing the word “cannabis” was getting high from smoking marijuana. But we now know that this miraculous plant does a lot more, and could even represent an all-natural way to “hack” your health.
The cannabis plant contains over 80 compounds called cannabinoids. THC is one such compound, and probably the most well-known—it’s the cannabinoid responsible for the euphoric effects of smoking marijuana. But other cannabinoids are now coming into the spotlight, ones that don’t carry with them that “high” effect, but do have remarkable healing properties. Right now, the one on the tip of everyone’s tongue is cannabidiol, or CBD.
You may have heard about CBD before—thanks to research done over the last 50 years or so, awareness of this amazing compound has grown steadily. You’re probably wondering—with understandable skepticism—how it works, and what exactly it does to benefit your health. So let’s dive in and try to boil it down:
(Editor’s note: If you want to take a deeper, more scientific dive into CBD’s properties, check out the nerdier version of this article, “How CBD Works.”)
Say hello to your endocannabinoid system
Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist who has come to be known as the father of cannabis medicine, discovered the first cannabinoid compounds in the early 1960s. His continued research, and that of other scientists, paved the way for the eventual discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in 1990.
Even though it’s a recent discovery, the ECS has been with us (and all vertebrate creatures) for millions of years. Your ECS is made up of millions of receptor sites that are mapped across various systems in your body. There are two types of ECS receptors—CB1 (which are mostly in your brain and central nervous system), and CB2 (which are found more in the peripheral nervous system and the immune system).
Why do we have these receptors? What does the ECS do? In simple terms, the ECS exists to maintain balance across many of our physiological functions. It accomplishes this via interactions between cannabinoid compounds and the CB1 and CB2 receptors (as well as other receptors in the body). These interactions, in turn, trigger various biochemical reactions that produce different neurotransmitters, speed up or slow down hormone signaling, and so on, regulating equilibrium in your body’s different systems.
Let’s talk cannabinoids
So where do we get these cannabinoids that fuel our ECS? Back to our friend Raphael Mechoulam: In the 1980s, he discovered anandamide, a neurotransmitter made in our bodies that bears a close chemical resemblance to the cannabinoids he’d discovered some 20 years before. It was named “anandamide” after the Sanskrit “ananda,” which means “bless” or “delight,” and is often called the “bliss hormone.” The discovery of this endocannabinoid (meaning a cannabinoid made in the body) ultimately led to the understanding of the ECS. There’s another endocannabinoid that was discovered soon after—2-AG. The ECS runs on these two primary endocannabinoids—they serve as the “fuel” by which chemical reactions are stimulated to maintain balance in the body.
Once you understand the ECS and the fact that cannabinoid compounds made in our bodies are crucial in regulating many of our most basic functions, it’s no big leap to understand how CBD, THC, and other phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids made by plants, like cannabis) affect us. These compounds from plants are similar in structure to the ones we make ourselves, so they can interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors, too. Because each cannabinoid compound varies slightly in chemical makeup, they interact with our ECS receptors (and other receptors) in different ways. This explains why THC can get you high, while CBD actually has the opposite effect. (Again, this is all explained in greater scientific detail in “How CBD Works.”)
How does CBD work in your body?
Even before the ECS was officially discovered and understood, Mechoulam and many other scientists were doing exciting research on how CBD can affect various systems in the body. We now know that CBD has powerful effects when it interacts not only with CB1 and CB2 receptors, but with other types of receptors in the body as well. You’ve probably heard that taking CBD can help to treat everything from insomnia to arthritis to cancer. Here are just some of the things CBD does in your system to achieve its benefits:
- CBD leaves more anandamide in your system by “hijacking” the proteins that anandamide binds with. This means that you’ve got more of the “bliss hormone” in your system, and the condition of your ECS improves. The end result here is greater protection for your neurons and nerve pathways, which can be preventative against all manner of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc. Anandamide is also sometimes called the body’s homemade antidepressant. A higher concentration of it in your system can lead to increased feelings of well-being and a better mood.
- CBD can activate your serotonin receptors, ultimately boosting levels of this important neurotransmitter in the brain. Why is this important? Your serotonin system is closely linked to anxiety, appetite, sleep, pain response, withdrawal and addiction, and vomiting and nausea. CBD’s effect on serotonin is why it’s been shown to help treat all of these issues.
- CBD affects the production of the neurotransmitter adenosine. Adenosine in turn influences the production of glutamate and dopamine—two very important chemical messengers. Glutamate is associated with cognition and learning. Dopamine is closely connected to motor function, motivation, and cognition. This is why studies are showing that CBD can have beneficial effects on diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are marked by imbalances when it comes to these chemical compounds.
- CBD works on your GABA receptors—the same receptors affected by medications like Xanax or Valium—to bring about anti-anxiety effects. The neurotransmitter GABA produces calming, soothing effects in the body. When CBD interacts with your GABA receptors, it boosts these calming effects. Unlike the drugs mentioned above (classified as benzodiazepines), CBD does this naturally, without harmful side effects.
- CBD affects another receptor called GPR55 that is mostly found in the brain. This receptor affects your bone density and bone reabsorption. Overactive signaling of this receptor has been implicated in cancer growth. CBD “calms” this signaling down, thereby helping to prevent not only bone diseases like osteoporosis, but also the proliferation of cancer cells.
- CBD can activate another set of receptors called PPARs. Activating these receptors has been shown to slow tumor growth and even induce tumor regression, making CBD a remedy worth watching for its anti-cancer effects. PPARs are also associated with the development of Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
- CBD can “turn off” the ID-1 gene. Associated with cell growth during prenatal development, ID-1 is normally dormant in adulthood. However, in some people it “turns on” again later in life, and this can lead to the growth of malignant cancer cells. CBD can help to hit the “off” button and set ID-1 back to its inactive state.
As new as it may seem, CBD has been the subject of thousands of studies since its discovery. Many such studies have been conducted on animals, but increasing awareness, along with changes in cannabis legalization across the United States, is slowly changing that. The studies that have been done on humans and animals alike point to a wide range of beneficial uses. We hope that we’ve been helpful and informative in showing you how CBD works and its far-reaching potential as an alternative medicine. If you’d like to dig a little deeper, peruse the articles in our SCIENCE section. If you’re curious about trying CBD, check out “What to Look for in a CBD Product.”