Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of more than 100 cannabinoids made by plants in the cannabis family and is found more than any other cannabinoid except THC. Cannabinoids are a powerful set of chemicals that can bind with and influence cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) – these receptors are present in most parts of the body, including the central nervous system and the brain.
CBD is often preferred to THC as there are no psychoactive effects from this non-intoxicating substance, meaning no “high” or “buzz” – however, it’s important not to discard THC, as it does produce some helpful therapeutic effects. But as far as an effective and accepted cannabis-based treatment goes, CBD-dominant options are leading the way.
What does science tell us about CBD?
The first thing that springs to mind when examining the medicinal properties of CBD is just how many benefits the compound appears to have, and how it can help with such differing conditions. This used to leave researchers stumped, but newfound knowledge of the ECS indicates that CBD works to regulate the network.
To understand the true benefits of CBD, it’s crucial to stick to high-quality studies and clinical trials and pay less attention to research with less rigorous tests – self-reporting surveys should also be viewed with apprehension. Animal research is a good first step, especially when studying the brain, as the brains of humans and rats are quite similar. In vitro tests give us a good idea of the mechanisms in which CBD works in, however these do not allow for unforeseen effects which may occur when CBD is in the body.
The wide-ranging benefits of CBD
CBD first became well-known in the mainstream when it emerged as a treatment for Dravet’s syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two rare types of intractable epilepsy, medication-resistant to pharmaceutical drugs. Over time, the anti-epileptic effects of the cannabinoid have been conclusively confirmed by clinical studies.
However, CBD can also help to reduce inflammation, neuropathic pain and chronic pain, to improve sleep, manage addiction and treat anxiety and depression, in addition to protecting the brain.
It is testament to CBD’s incredible influence over the human body, which it exercises through interactions with the endocannabinoid system, and other less-prominent networks of neurotransmitters and receptors. Sometimes, CBD inhibits enzymes or genes for therapeutic reasons.
Understanding the brain
Neurons are cells in the brain with special capabilities – they are found in abundance and link up with each other in structures known as synapses. In synapses, neurons can communicate with other neurons by releasing neurotransmitters, such as endocannabinoids like anandamide.
For a neuron to bind with a particular neurotransmitter, it must have the appropriate receptor – imagine a “lock and key” situation, where the receptor is the lock and the neurotransmitter is the key. Providing there is a match, the receptor can respond to the neurotransmitter attempting to attach. If the two cannot link, then the receptor is typically unable to reply.
Receptors in the brain can be influenced by neurotransmitters, such as endocannabinoids, serotonin and dopamine. However, plant-based chemicals (i.e. phytocannabinoids) can also serve as chemical messengers for these receptors. Therefore, when you’re smoking a joint, vaping CBD e-liquid or consuming edibles, you’re putting compounds into your body that can travel around the body in the bloodstream, pass through the blood-brain barrier and bind with receptors in the brain. The connection between THC and the CB1 receptor is what produces the psychoactive effects of cannabis. However, cannabinoids can only interact with neurons that have compatible receptors.
How CBD works with the brain
To make matters more complex, CBD does not work with cannabinoid receptors in the brain in the simplistic way that THC does. Rather, CBD indirectly interacts with both CB1 and CB2 receptors. The absence of a direct bond with the CB1 receptor is why CBD doesn’t induce psychoactive effects like THC. But what CBD can do is enhance endocannabinoid production, allowing the ECS to function with endogenous compounds. Anandamide, for instance, is usually limited in the ECS due to breakdown from fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) – but CBD blocks this enzyme.
Interestingly, CBD has been found to affect systems outside of the ECS, and its association with receptors in the opioid system could explain the pain-relieving and potential anti-addiction effects of the cannabinoid. Opioid receptors are targeted by drug researchers developing painkiller medicine, however synthetics like morphine and fentanyl are extremely strong, easily abused and possible to overdose on. CBD is none of these and could be a much more attractive future treatment for pain.
CBD may also boost mood, increase focus and motivation, and improve cognitive function by interacting with dopamine receptors in the brain, although the science on this is flimsy at present.
How CBD’s effects on the brain may treat addiction
The potential interactions CBD makes with dopamine and opioid receptors is fascinating to researchers of opioid drugs and addiction. Some anecdotes suggest that CBD can reduce withdrawal symptoms when coming off an addictive substance, which in theory would make it easier to quit. CBD’s suppression of stress and anxiety may also aid the process. However, until more extensive scientific research is conducted, it’s hard to make definitive claims.
Research on animals has shown that CBD activates serotonin receptors, including the 5-HT1A receptor, which is also stimulated by psilocybin. This could hold another clue as to why CBD can help drug addicts. CBD’s activation of the 5-HT1A receptor may be very important for future research, with experts indicating that it has the potential to treat mental health disorders like schizophrenia, reduce symptoms of nausea and relieve depression. Scientists are yet to work out what impact that CBD’s interaction with 5-HT1A has in humans, with all existing quality data coming from preclinical studies on animals.
Therefore, it may be a little hasty to tout the benefits of CBD in this area, but as a safe and non-psychoactive compound, the likes of CBD chocolate and CBD gummy bears could be worth trying.
Please note that this article has been written for educational purposes and is no substitute to actual medical advice.