Cannabinoid Oil — known as CBD — has been touted as many things. Since its emergence as a popular treatment for a range of health conditions — and overall beneficial supplement — scientists have been hard at work studying the actual mechanisms at play between this unique oil and the human body.
And study they have. Over the last 20 years, peer-reviewed articles on the endocannabinoid system have been published more than 25,100 times. That’s over 2 peer-reviewed articles a day! And while there’s still a long way to go in fully understanding this byproduct of a miraculous plant, we’ve certainly learned a lot.
In fact, if you took anatomy and physiology in years past, you might be surprised to learn that medical textbooks now include the endocannabinoid system. Yes, “system,” like the musculoskeletal system, or endocrine system, or nervous system.
This acceptance of the importance of cannabinoids has been followed by dramatic policy changes. With the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD derived from hemp is now federally legal. In a majority of states, marijuana-derived CBD is also legal for qualifying medical patients.
Additionally, 2018 became the first year in which CBD — in the form of the pharmaceutical Epidiolex — was approved for the treatment of a medical condition by the FDA. Epidiolex has been found to help with seizures associated with two forms of epilepsy.
While there is scientific evidence that CBD is beneficial to a wide range of bodily systems, and potentially as treatment (or a portion of treatment) for a variety of conditions, CBD is most readily associated with treating the brain and nervous system.
That’s what we’re going to delve into in this guide. But first, we’ll lay some of the groundwork for understanding what exactly CBD does for the body and all of its complex components.
Table of Contents:
- What is the endocannabinoid system?
- What health conditions are related to the endocannabinoid system?
- What are the effects of CBD on your brain?
- What are the effects of CBD on your nervous system?
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
CBD is received in our body by endocannabinoid receptors. Together these receptors comprise the endocannabinoid system.
You could say that the endocannabinoid system is “ground zero” for understanding how our body processes CBD. And by looking at the actions of the endocannabinoid system we can truly answer what CBD does for our bodies.
So what is it?
The endocannabinoid system has even been called perhaps our most important physiological system. We have cannabinoid receptors throughout our body. Locations include our connective tissues, organs, nerves, brain, immune cells, and glands. And depending on the current needs of our body, cannabinoid receptors move, multiply or “express” themselves to a greater or lesser extent.
Activated cannabinoid receptors perform a wide variety of actions depending on where they are located within the body. A recurring trend for their mechanisms, however, is that activated cannabinoid receptors promote homeostasis (or balance).
The endocannabinoid system promotes homeostasis at both the cellular and system levels. With the incorporation of mood regulation centers of the brain, one could even say the endocannabinoid system promotes homeostasis at the community level as well.
The fact that CBD works on our nervous system, a system comprised of neurons, nerves, our brain stem, and our brain, is very crucial to an understanding of the system as a whole. The endocannabinoid system essentially bridges the gap between aspects of your brain and the rest of your body. This allows the endocannabinoid system to act as a communicator between different types of cells.
Additionally, cannabinoid receptors are often found at the edges of systems as well as injuries where a bodily system may once have grown and is recovering from damage.
For example, at the edge of a wound, cannabinoids can be found balancing our your body’s response. From the meeting point of the nervous system and the wound, cannabinoids can stabilize damaged nerve endings, reducing unnecessary firings as well as inflammation caused by the response of nearby immune cells. In this instance, the endocannabinoid system responds to a bodily issue by communicating with a range of cell types, each in different ways. All with the result of reducing pain and facilitating a return to homeostasis in the injured area.
Particular examples of the endocannabinoid system at work are too numerous to recount here. But in short, the properly firing cannabinoid receptors act as a bridge through which a variety of cell types coordinate to maintain homeostasis.
As you’ve likely already gleaned, cannabinoid receptors are the primary activation points of the endocannabinoid system.
Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout our bodies embedded in cell membranes. They move or express themselves more fully in areas of need. They are thought to be the most numerous of all neuroreceptors in our body.
There are two primary types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. These receptors act on different systems within the body but are often found at the same locations coordinating their responses.
CB1 receptors are primarily concentrated and act on connective tissues, gonads, glands, organs, and the nervous system.
CB2 receptors are primarily concentrated and act on the immune system and related infrastructure.
Though there is still much to learn, GPR55 is thought to be a third cannabinoid receptor. This receptor aids in increasing the amount of calcium in our neurons. Calcium is important to neurons by aiding to hold neuronal charge, proper excitability levels, and programmed cell death and regrowth.
Our body naturally makes endocannabinoids to stimulate these receptors. Though, as with many chemicals made by our bodies, we can find ourselves not making enough.
Phyto-cannabinoids are plant-based chemicals that stimulate these receptors. They can help to promote proper activity levels within the endocannabinoid system. The most well-known phyto-cannabinoids include THC (the psychoactive compound found in Marijuana), CBD, and CBN (cannabinol).
These compounds are primarily found in the plant cannabis sativa. While cannabis sativa has been associated with marijuana and the psychoactive compound THC in recent history, only some parts of the plant contain noteworthy amounts of THC. Plant matter containing less than .3% THC is classified as hemp and known to be largely not-psychoactive. As of 2018 hemp is federally legal and classified as an agricultural commodity.
Other phyto-cannabinoids include lab-created compounds including dronabinol and nabilone.
What health conditions are related to the endocannabinoid system?
Now that we’ve worked through a general outline of the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoid receptors, we can start to explore the numerous ways in which this system relates to your health.
While the FDA has only approved phyto-cannabinoid related drugs for the treatment of nausea, pain, seizures, and wasting disease, peer-reviewed articles have shown that CBD can stimulate the endocannabinoid system to modulate a variety of bodily responses.
Some of the most scientifically-substantiated links between the endocannabinoid system and our health include:
- Cannabinoid receptors have been widely recorded helping with hard-to-treat and neuropathic pain.
- CBD has been judged to help insomnia patients.
- CBD has been found to help combat neurodegenerative diseases and memory loss.
- CBD has been noted to trigger anti-seizure mechanisms in a range of animals.
- CBD has been recorded to minimize withdrawal symptoms in addition.
- CBD has been found to reduce inflammation.
- CBD has been noted to promote anti-cancer mechanisms.
- And a wide range of other conditions.
One of the key differences between non-pharmaceutical phytocannabinoids (like CBD) and pharmaceuticals is that CBD can provide support when it is needed across a wide range of bodily systems.
CBD has been largely found to not have noticeable side effects as well as to have very few contraindications or interactions with other drugs. This makes CBD a much more viable long-term or recurring treatment used to promote holistic homeostasis.
We should of course note that work is presently being done on FDA-approved applications of cannabinoids for the above health conditions. As of now, the FDA does not endorse CBD as a treatment for many health conditions except seizures from epilepsy, wasting disease, nausea, and pain management issues.
Now that we’ve covered the ways in which cannabinoid receptors function, and the range of bodily systems that can benefit from a fully functioning endocannabinoid system, we should move into our main focus of this article.
What are the effects of CBD on your brain?
Even with thousands of peer-reviews studies on the effect of cannabinoids on our body, our understanding of this uniquely powerful system is still in its infancy. Literally every month, new discoveries of massive importance repaint our view of the endocannabinoid system’s power and nuance.
With that said, there are a range of ways in which CBD alters and supports our brain is known. Below we’ll look at some of the most heavily-researched interactions between cannabinoids and the brain.
One of the most often touted claims is that CBD can enlarge your hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of your brain most closely associated with the regulation of emotion, short and long-term memory, and spatial intelligence. While not all cannabinoids are good for the hippocampus (regular THC use is linked with shrinking in the hippocampus), CBD is known to be neuroprotective and even help the hippocampus grow.
A number of studies have detailed this phenomenon. But one of the latest looked at those who had lost hippocampus mass due to regular use of THC. In this case they found that not only was CBD neuroprotective, but that the most regular users of THC had the largest amount of hippocampus growth.
A second claim of great importance during today’s opioid epidemic is that CBD disrupts your opioid receptors. Neuroreceptors are typically capable of accepting certain chemicals. And as both CBD and opiates are taken in by overlapping receptors, CBD can help to dampen the reward response so critical to ongoing addictive behaviors. Additionally, CBD has been found to lower anxiety-levels, cravings, and pain that often underlies addiction.
As we mentioned when talking about cannabinoid receptors, GPR55 may be a third receptor type. Through this receptor it has been found that CBD is neuroprotective through enhancing calcium levels in neurons as well as managing programmed cell death. Neurons need optimal calcium levels to retain their charge. In this sense calcium levels in neurons literally help you ‘run on all cylinders.’ As for programmed cell death, this helps cells to die at the proper time so they can be replaced with new cell growth.
Many studies have indicated anti-anxiety mechanisms that are triggered by CBD use. Use of CBD for acute anxiety episodes related to PTSD, OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder have been particularly well documented. The implications of this action performed by CBD are numerous and can lead to better sleep, better health outcomes, ease in recovering from addiction, and a range of other outcomes.
An important note about CBD research and pain is that many studies have found that CBD not only helps to remove some underlying causes of pain, but limits the perception of pain through the Vanilloid receptors. Recent research on the topic is also of interest because it shows an instance in which CBD is received by receptors outside of the endocannabinoid system when needed.
In a study in some ways similar to the previous, rats in inevitably stressful situations saw immediate drops in physical and mental symptoms of stress through 5HT1A receptors interacting with CBD. These studies show a stress response reduction from CBD and a second instance of CBD interacting with receptors outside of the endocannabinoid system when needed.
Sleeping is undoubtedly central to our ability to process mentally. A recent study has shown a link between reduction of sleep apnea symptoms when the endocannabinoid system is stimulated. Sleep apnea is perhaps the largest cause of suboptimal sleep and currently has no single known cure.
A wide range of studies have noted the relationship between a range of cannabinoids and neurotransmitters known to regulate mood, judgement, and executive function. In particular, GPR55 is known to aid in the proper production of both GABA and dopamine. These critical neurotransmitters have wide-ranging consequences within human development, memory, judgement, and reducing neuronal over-excitability throughout the nervous system.
Finally, CBD is non-psychotropic. While THC products also stimulate portions of the endocannabinoid system, they produce the “high” regularly associated with marijuana. CBD does not trigger this response. Additionally, CBD has been found to modulate and minimize this response.
What are the effects of CBD on your nervous system?
The nervous system is comprised of the central nervous system — which includes the brain and brain stem — as well as the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is comprised of the systems of nerves that branch out all across your body.
As we focused on many of the ways in which CBD affects your brain (which is part of your nervous system) in the previous section, we’ll be focusing a bit more on how CBD affects the peripheral nervous system here. With that said, just know that nearly all of benefits of CBD listed in this guide have to do with the nervous system in some way.
Within the peripheral nervous system, there are four main functions each of which are provided for by specialized cells. These include neurons, motor neurons, reflex neurons, and sensory neurons. While these types of neurons are responsible for very different matters, neurons essentially perform the same actions across the body.
When certain conditions are triggered, neurons pass chemicals known as neurotransmitters to one another. These interactions trigger complex responses related to pain, regulation of hormones, and a wide range of other conditions.
In a general sense, cannabinoids that attach to the GPR55 receptor have been found to promote overall functionality within neurons across your body. Stimulated GPR55 receptors have been found to promote proper levels of calcium within neurons. This helps neurons to retain their charge, allowing them to incite the proper responses when triggered. Additionally GPR55 has been linked to promoting proper programmed cell death. This helps your nerves to function at their height by recycling old cell mass at the proper times.
A second important nervous system function related to cannabinoids is that of acetylcholine production. GPR55 receptors have been found to help in the production of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps to activate skeletal muscles in a ‘natural’ way during voluntary movement. This is a case of cannabinoids aiding in the function of motor neurons. Without the proper acetylcholine levels, smooth movement (or any movement at all) is impossible. This critical chemical actually travels from our nervous system to neuromuscular junctions. Upon reaching its final destination it incites chemical changes that cause the contraction of muscles.
A range of anxiety and trauma-related disorders can lead to state of hyperarousal in the peripheral nervous system. These states can range in severity from mild discomfort (physically and mentally) to completely debilitating. One of the most common conditions in which hyper arousal is present is PTSD. A growing body of research supports the use of cannabinoids to reduce the release of corticosterone, a chemical that triggers a range of stress response reactions that lead to negative health outcomes.
Summarizing Our Findings
The last twenty years have led to enormous changes in our understanding and use of cannabinoids. With a treasure trove of peer-reviewed papers to support medicinal and therapeutic uses of cannabinoid-containing substances, and CBD recently made federally legal, the time has never been better to investigate the relationship between CBD and your health.
Growing research on the endocannabinoid system — the system primarily responsible for utilizing cannabinoids — has now created an outline of the many ways in which cannabinoids are incredibly good for our bodies.
Some of the findings of research through the last few years include noting the degree to which stimulated cannabinoid receptors promote homeostasis in the other systems of our body.
Most notably, endocannabinoid-aided homeostasis occurs:
- In our motor neurons
- In the excitability of our central nervous system
- In our overall neuron cell health
- In our immune system responses
- In our perception of pain
- In balanced sleep and wake cycles
- And many other interactions
Perhaps most exciting, recent research points to a range of previously undiscovered neuroreceptor types related to the endocannabinoid system. This collection of neuroreceptors including those traditionally associated with the endocannabinoid system makes the receptor sites of this system the most prevalent of any neuroreceptors throughout your body.
One area in which the application of CBD is of most interest includes the relationship between CBD, your brain, and your nervous system in general. While new relationships between the endocannabinoid system and your nervous system are being discovered daily, some of the most eye-opening CBD effects include:
- Promotion of nerve cell health and vitality
- Promotion of muscle tone and ability to move smoothly
- Lowering of the release of stress-response hormones
- Reduction of sleep apnea symptoms
- Promotion of better mood, executive function, and memory
- Disruption of opioid receptors
- Neuroprotective benefits
- Enlargement of your hippocampus
- All of the above effects occur from a non-psychotropic substance
While all of the above effects to the brain and nervous system from CBD have been recorded in peer-reviewed medical research articles, one should note that the FDA has only approved a limited number of cannabinoid-centered pharmaceuticals to treat specific medical conditions. While we believe this number will quickly rise with time, the FDA does not — at this time — endorse CBD as a “cure” for any medical conditions.
With this said, the massive influx of hemp growers nationwide, the 2018 farm bill legalizing CBD federally, and the rapid acceptance of CBD use by the general population have only accelerated research on the topic. Our final takeaway is that you truly have nothing to lose. CBD is known to have minimal side effects which are present in nearly every pharmaceutical meant to aid in the health conditions throughout this review. Most prominent CBD companies have a wide range of dosage amounts, and a growing number of healthcare professionals are well acquainted with knowledge of CBD.