Just one of the many cannabinoids found in the Cannabis sativa plant, cannabidiol (CBD) is popping up in products everywhere. In fact, CBD has become so popular that we’re past asking, “What does CBD do?” The question now is, “How does CBD do all that?” The answer to that lies within the complex and fascinating workings of the human body.
Cannabinoids aren’t a new concept
Travel back to 2737 B.C.E. and you’ll find that cannabis originated in Central Asia and that its first medicinal use was recorded by Emperor Shen Neng of China. From there, fast forward to 1550 B.C.E. when Ancient Egypt’s Ebers Papyrus mentions cannabis use. In ancient China, 100 A.D., there’s reference to the uses of the cannabis plant’s flowers, seeds, and leaves. Ancient and medieval physicians also mixed the plant with tea and medicines. Even in the late 1700s, American medical journals documented the use of hemp.
So, humans have been aware of the cannabis plant for at least 4700 years (that we know of).
Want to know more? You can read more about the plant’s journey through the ages to the present day here.
But what we didn’t know then was that humans have a biological system called the endocannabinoid system that regulates mood, pain, sleep, appetite, the immune system, and more.
The endocannabinoid system
The ESC, human endocannabinoid system, was discovered in 1992 by researchers William Devane and Dr. Lumir Hanus of the National Institute of Mental Health. The ESC contains cannabinoid receptors that are present throughout the body in the immune cells, brain cells, spinal cord, skin, organs, tissues, glands, and cardiovascular system. These receptors activate in the presence of cannabinoids. The body receives cannabinoids from two sources, either from within the body (endogenous) called endocannabinoids or from outside the body (exogenous), as in the form of plants, or phytocannabinoids. While endocannabinoids function differently throughout the body, they are always working to keep our body in balance, a condition known as homeostasis.
How phytocannabinoids work with our endocannabinoid system
The prefix “phyto” refers to “plant.” So, phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, and just like the cannabinoids produced by the human ESC, plant-derived phytocannabinoids also help the body to balance things like pain, inflammation, anxiety, stress, mood, sleep, and more. Because a prolonged imbalance of these functions can jeopardize a person’s health, the ESC constantly tries to keep these functions in balance.
How CBD works with the endocannabinoid system
Scientific studies show that cannabinoids like CBD help our ESC and its receptors in one of two ways: as an agonist or an antagonist.
- An agonist imitates endocannabinoids, helping them to activate receptors.
- An antagonist inhibits receptors from activating, helping to suppress a reaction.
For instance, CBD works as an agonist to activate endocannabinoids that stimulate 5-HT1A receptors or what are known as serotonin receptors. Stimulating these receptors helps to balance the functions for which serotonin receptors are responsible, including anxiety, depression, appetite, and sleep.
However, CBD’s abilities are much more complicated than that. Depending on the receptor, CBD can act as an antagonist, as it does with adenosine receptors’ reuptake. By hampering these receptors’ reuptake, CBD increases the amount of adenosine received by the brain, and by consequence, works as an agonist to help manage adenosine receptor activity. Responsible for cardiovascular function, oxygen levels, and blood flow, adenosine receptors also aid the body in reducing inflammation; thus, making CBD an important contributor to the body’s fight to maintain homeostasis by reducing inflammation and anxiety. CBD acts as an antagonist again when in the presence of the GPR55 receptor. The GPR55 receptor is responsible for increasing various types of cancer cells, but CBD helps to prevent this receptor’s function.
CBD acts as an agonist to PPAR receptors, whose job is to reduce the spread of cancer cells, inhibit tumor growth, and reduce amyloid-beta plaque, a causative molecule in Alzheimer’s disease. When CBD stimulates PPAR receptors, it helps achieve these outcomes.
Interestingly, the cannabinoid THC binds to CB1 receptors and acts as an agonist, activating these receptors and creating the “high” one gets from inhaling or ingesting cannabis. CBD, on the other hand, works largely as an antagonist on CB1 receptors. Because of this, CBD can be taken to reduce the effects of overwhelming amounts of THC. Studies are even showing promise for one day using CBD to counteract opioid addiction.
Tasked with the important job of maintaining the body’s physiological processes, the human endocannabinoid system is a fascinating mechanism. While the human body produces its own endocannabinoids, we now know that the receptors can process phytocannabinoids as well.