Cannabidiol, also known as its acronym CBD, is a substantial part of the cannabis plant and gained a lot of popularity for being a well digestible treatment for numerous diseases.
As Perry Solomon, who is a medical doctor and the chief medical officer of HelloMD, recently commented on the cannabinoid in an interview with Leafly, “it’s been found that CBD alone can cause a feeling of calm, relaxation. […] Taken on its own, CBD has sedative, antioxidant, anti-anxiety, and antidepressant effects on the brain, but does not create any overtly psychoactive high like THC.”
These beneficial effects actually make sense when taking a closer look at the molecular mechanisms of CBD inside the human body. But how exactly does CBD work within the physiology of our bodies?
Your body: a natural producer of cannabinoids
Most people are unaware that the human body has its own system for processing and even creating its own cannabinoids. This system is known as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). Its discovery in the United States in 1992 opened the doors to systematic cannabis research in recent years and subsequently revealed new perspectives for medical use.
The ECS is involved in multiple physiologic processes, such as the regulation of pain, mood and cognition, as well as immune functions and metabolism. Cannabinoid receptors can be found throughout the whole body. So far, two primary endocannabinoid receptors have been identified: CB1 receptors are primarily found in brain regions that play an important role in memory and motor regulation, whereas CB2 receptors are primarily present in cells of the immune system and in bone marrow cells.
When activated, these receptors create an anti-inflammatory immune response. Since naturally produced cannabinoids play a central role in the human body, they have been scrutinized in recent decades. Consequently, if and how the ECS might intervene with CBD is a highly discussed topic amongst the scientific community and could potentially provide solutions to cure difficult or yet incurable diseases.
Your brain: a prime port for CBD
In contrast to THC, which binds to both cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, cannabidiol does not directly bind to any receptors. In fact, it influences the Endocannabinoid system by inhibiting the enzyme FAAH which is responsible for the breakdown of the endocannabinoid anandamide. Thus, leading to an increase of the anandamide level in the brain.
Also known as the “molecule of bliss,” anandamide constitutes one of the body’s most important endocannabinoids. Due to its very similar chemical structure to THC, it binds to the same receptors of the Endocannabinoid system and is therefore often referred to as the “body’s THC.” Being recognized as a mood enhancer, anandamide may also be involved in the function of a number of other processes, such as appetite, pain and memory.
Given the above evidence that anandamide has significant medical potential, one could actually be inclined to view the use of CBD as a way to take advantage of these benefits. At this point, however, researchers still do not fully understand anandamide and its effects on the body in the context of cannabinoids. Therefore, more research is needed to clarify how anandamide works in our bodies, what benefits it might have and how we can regulate it in order to achieve positive effects in the human body.
Aside from that, CBD also triggers the following receptor systems:
CBD targets a particular serotonin receptor, the serotonin 1A (or 5‐HT1A ) receptor. One of the functions of this receptor is to control for anxiety and stress. Evidence from various studies suggests that CBD — by activating 5‐HT1A receptors — can attenuate autonomic responses to stress and lead to a reduction of anxiety. This raises the possibility that CBD could be useful for treating psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorder and post‐traumatic stress disorder.
Another receptor activated by CBD is the vanilloid receptor type 1 (TRPV1). It is involved in pain sensation and inflammation. Studies have shown a positive correlation between increased TRPV1- levels and illnesses associated with chronic pain such as arthritis.
The inhibiting effect of CBD on TRPV1 could, therefore, have an analgesic (pain reducing) effect in a number of different pain indications. Incidentally, CBD also works on the type 2 receptor, which can use its information to eliminate malignant tumor cells.
Therapeutic application possibilities
As already identified, CBD’s therapeutic potential is without a doubt immense. Still, several signs point towards the theory that other cannabinoids, particularly THC, could have strong — and most probably positive — synergetic effects that emerge when using CBD in the human body. “Studies have shown CBD to have a positive effect on inflammation, pain, anxiety, psychosis and spasms, but it should be noted that most of these applications are not treated with just CBD alone and in fact do require some level of THC,” said Constance Finley, founder and CEO of Contance Therapeutics. That being said, these are some of the most significant treatment opportunities for CBD.
Treatment for anxiety disorder/ depression
A growing body of evidence indicates that inflammation may be involved in the pathophysiology of at least some forms of depression. Listed below are some of the most important studies conducted over the last years on treating depression with CBD.
Study (2010): Antidepressant‐like effects of cannabidiol in mice: possible involvement of 5‐HT1A receptors
Publisher: British Journal of Pharmacology
Results: CBD induces antidepressant-like effects comparable to those of Imipramine. Results further suggest that these effects of CBD may be mediated by activation of 5-HT(1A) receptors.”
Study (2014): Antidepressant-Like and Anxiolytic-Like Effects of Cannabidiol: A Chemical Compound of Cannabis sativa
Publisher: Bentham Science Publishers
Results: By reviewing studies that investigated the anxiolytic-like and antidepressant-like effects of CBD on animal models, a variety of experiments, such as the forced swimming test, elevated plus maze and Vogel conflict test, suggest that CBD exhibited an anti-anxiety and antidepressant effect in animal models.
Study (2016): Prohedonic Effect of Cannabidiol in a Rat Model of Depression.
Results: CBD has shown a prohedonic (willingness to move towards a goal or away from a threat) effect on rats that underwent the saccharin preference test, the elevated plus maze test and the novel object exploration.
Treatment of chronic pain
Cannabidiol oil consists of extracts from the hemp plant. As reported by MedicalNewsToday, it is effectively used by people as a pain reliever to treat illnesses associated with chronic pain. In illnesses, in which TRPV1 receptor sensitivity and expression are increased, CBD oil may represent a useful alternative in the treatment of disease-associated chronic pain.
The bottom line
Taken all these factors into account, cannabidiol seems to have rightfully earned its heavy increase in popularity as an alternative and natural medical treatment method. The cannabinoid influences the Endocannabinoid System indirectly by increasing the concentration of anandamide within the brain. Anandamide, possibly one of the most crucial endocannabinoids within the body, plays a key role in the central nervous system.
With further characteristics that reestablish the natural balance in the human immune system, CBD can be seen as an allrounder in many things related to human well-being. Especially the fairly low amount of potential side effects, which is in contrast to the extremely high figure of severe side effects when using conventional drugs, gives hope for further research and medication development of CBD.
As global scientific institutions are starting to catch up on the research of this promising medicine, chances are high that we will see more therapeutic products that are based on CBD in the near future.