How CBD Works: CBD and the Endocannabinoid System 

How CBD Works: CBD and the Endocannabinoid System 

What you’ll learn:

  • Why CBD can do so many seemingly unrelated things in the body
  • What the endocannabinoid system is (ECS)
  • How the ECS works to promote healing and calm in your body
  • How the ECS protects the brain
  • How CBD uses the ECS to bring your body back into balance

CBD seems to have something for everyone. It may be hard to believe, but if you have been following my blogs, and certainly the news media, you know that CBD has myriad benefits. It may even sound too good to be true! 

Scientific research as well as my own clinical experience shows that the ECS can do the following: 

  • Improve exercise performance and recovery 
  • Improve immune functioning
  • Relieve pain 
  • Reduce inflammation 
  • Reduce stress and worry
  • Alleviate PMS symptoms
  • Balance blood sugar 
  • Improve digestive issues 
  • Improve mood
  • Increase focus
  • Improve memory 
  • And much, much more!

It clearly can modulate many health issues, and optimize function, as well. So, with all of these almost too good to be true benefits, where’s the catch? 

There is none. It’s just biology. Where does CBD fit in? 

CBD isolate vs Full Spectrum

To begin with, what is generally referred to as CBD is either CBD isolate or, more often, “full spectrum hemp oil extract.” Here, I’m referring to the latter. It not only contains a high concentration of CBD, but also other cannabinoids, terpenes and a variety of other naturally occurring beneficial components of the hemp plant. By law, it can have up to 0.3% THC as well.  You will find a longer explanation of this here.

The Secret Lies in the Body’s Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

The primary function of the ECS is to maintain homeostasis, and to help the body rest, restore, and protect — and it does a fantastic job of it!

The definition of homeostasis is “the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.” In other words, your body is always trying to achieve a state of relative balance. 

Your body heals best in a calmer, more balanced state. 

To clarify, calm does not mean still. Your body can be in motion, but it’s moving without the additional energy expenditure and redirection of the stress response (also called the fight or flight response). Stress is controlled by part of your central nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for your body’s largely unconscious processes like digestion, respiration, heart rate, and arousal. It has two complementary modes, fight or flight, governed by the sympathetic nervous system, and rest and digest, which is run by the parasympathetic nervous system.

When your body perceives a threat, whether that threat be a lion on the savannah or a red light when you’re running late to a meeting, it goes into fight or flight. All of your resources are redirected to survival. Your heart rate increases to pump blood into your muscles, you become hyper-vigilant—maybe to the point irritability—digestion slows, your palms sweat, and your mouth goes dry. Sound familiar? It’s stress. When stressed, your body ignores healing. It saves that laborious work for a time when you feel safe and there is nothing to run from. That’s what I mean when I say calm: your autonomic nervous system has switched from fight or flight to rest and digest. You don’t feel anxious, your body does not feel tense, and it redirects its resources toward healing. 

The ECS, then, works to calm all of your body’s systems, pulling it back into the rest and digest mode and improving your ability to heal. The immune system, hunger cues, the reproductive system, memory, thinking, muscle tension, motor coordination, sensory perception, metabolism, and more are all balanced by the ECS. Remember, stress and homeostasis involve virtually every bodily system.

So, how does the ECS accomplish this amazing feat? 

First, let’s look at the biology. 

Like all bodily systems, the ECS has its own unique set of components that allow it to communicate throughout. They are:

  1. Endocannabinoids: The chemical messengers the ECS uses to communicate throughout the body.
  2. Receptors: The specialized proteins on the surface of cells that messengers bind to, thereby sending signals to the cell. 
  3. Enzymes: Molecules that create and break down bigger molecules; in this case, the endocannabinoids. 

Cannabinoids is a blanket term for any chemical messenger that activates the ECS. 

The word endocannabinoids comes from the words endogenous meaning generated in your body, and cannabinoid meaning cannabis-like, since the ECS was first discovered in connection with THC and later, with CBD, both from the cannabis plant. Endocannabinoids, then, are cannabinoids made in your body. Yes, you have your own, homegrown cannabinoids similar to those found in hemp. Two of the most studied of these are 2-AG and anandamide. The name of the latter comes from ananda which means bliss in Sanskrit, since it was first discovered as the THC messenger, and THC gets you feeling that way. 

Endocannabinoids are one of the most abundant chemical messengers in the body Specifically, they are the most abundant neurotransmitter, which is a specific type of messenger that can activate neurons. That should give you a major hint as to just how important the ECS is for your health. 

These endocannabinoids are both built and broken down by enzymes. The main enzymes that break down endocannabinoids are FAAH and MAGL 

The endocannabinoids bind to the two types of ECS receptors, CB1 and CB2.  These receptors are prolific throughout the body. When the endocannabinoids bind to these receptors, they activate the ECS. 

Though neither ECS receptor lays exclusive claim to an area of the body, they do tend to be more concentrated in certain areas. CB1 receptors are most common in the central nervous system with a less significant but still notable showing in the cardiovascular system, lungs, muscles, liver, GI tract, and reproductive system. With this distribution, CB1 plays a role in general neurological functions like pain, memory, and movement as well as a functional role in immune, bone, and heart health. 

CB2 receptors do also appear in the brain, but they are most common in the peripheral nervous systemwhich encompasses all neurological functioning outside of the brain and spinal cordas well as the organs, blood cells, and especially in the tissue associated with the immune system, pancreas, spleen, bones and skin. It plays a role in the stress response, immune modulation, inflammation, brain protection, bone mass, and liver support. As you may know, your liver is your primary detox organ. 

Now, let’s see what this biology can do. The ECS has a variety of effects all over the body, but as a psychiatrist, I will focus more on the brain.  

Communication. The ECS’s main method of relaxing the body is to help all of the body’s cells communicate signals more effectively. It does this for all systems—the motor, the sensory, the pain systems—you name it. As you now know, they all have ECS receptors. 

Protection. By easing cells and cellular signals, the ECS also protects them. Studies show, for example, that during a stroke, ECS activity increases to protect nerve cells. Moreover, CBD, through its effect on the ECS, has been shown to limit nerve damage in traumatic brain injuries. 

In a controlled laboratory setting, Israeli researchers inflicted a brain injury on a group of mice (sorry). They then treated half of them with plant-derived 2-AG (the endogenous ECS messenger) shortly after injury, while the other half were left to heal on their own. When tested 24 hours after the injury and then again months after the injury, the treated mice sustained far less damage and recovered more fully than the untreated mice. And this was with just a single dose. 

Neurotransmitter Regulation. In the brain, the ECS modulates our feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, which regulates reward, serotonin, which creates calm and good mood, GABA, which also creates calm, and acetylcholine, which boosts memory and mental acuity. Endocannabinoids actually prevent the breakdown of the feel-good neurotransmitters, allowing them to hang around in the brain for longer and exert a longer lasting effect. Because it is tuned into these essential pathways, the ECS can play a role in mood regulation and addiction, two areas I have covered for years in my integrative psychiatry practice. 

Of note, individuals with a low ECS may experience anxiety, depression, or a poor memory, all of which may improve when you fortify the ECS with the phytocannabinoid,  CBD.

Neuron Growth. We previously thought of the brain as unable to grow new neurons or change much once we reach adulthood. We now know this is not true, and that the ECS has something to do with it.

Though researchers haven’t figured out exactly how, we know the ECS plays an important role in neurogenesis, the generation and integration of new neurons, and neuroplasticity, the alteration of connections between neurons and the structures those neurons create. 

In fact, studies show that when consistently administered to adult rats, cannabinoids can increase the production of new neurons and prolong the survival of existing cells in certain areas of the brain. It should be noted that not all areas of the brain seem to be capable of neurogenesis in adulthood, but for those that are, studies with phytocannabinoids have had promising results.

This partially explains why scientists have seen some positive results and massive potential for using cannabinoids in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s and other dementias. As the name implies, damage to and loss of nerve cells are intimately involved in driving life-altering neurodegenerative disorders. 

For Alzheimer’s in particular, CBD has shown strong potential to prevent the abnormal clumping of tau protein that is the signature of the devastating disease. In a 2006 study, University of Connecticut researchers predicted it would far outpace any of the current, and not very successful, Alzheimer’s treatments. 

Immune System Regulation. CBD is also good for the brain due to the ECS’s ability to reduce inflammation, which underlies some of the hardest-to-treat and devastating disorders. It’s a factor in such conditions as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and schizophrenia, as well as the neurodegenerative disorders mentioned. 

With CBD, you can tap into your ECS to unleash its healing, calming benefits.

In today’s world, calm can be hard to come by. Stress comes at us from all angles—demanding jobs that involve too much sitting, the very real pressures of social media, toxic foods stuffed with chemicals, pollution, the list goes on. 

These trigger the cascade of reactions that comprise the stress response, including increased cortisol, neurotransmitter imbalance, and inflammatory signalling. We become anxious and ill, with muscle tension, headaches, digestive problems, brain fog, and vulnerability to a variety of addictions and mental illness. This reflects a hyperactive immune system reacting with inflammation rather than being in a quiescent, non-activated state of “surveillance” which would protect us from these problems. Fortunately, they can be modified by the ECS. 

That’s where CBD comes in. 

CBD works in two ways. First, like the other cannabinoids, it binds to ECS receptors and activates the ECS. Second, it works by blocking FAAH near the endocannabinoid receptor site, prolonging the breakdown of endocannabinoids such as anandamide, so that the effect of endocannabinoids lasts longer. That’s why the phytocannabinoids can have such far-reaching effects, because they tap into the innate power of the ECS. 

Think of taking CBD as shifting the balance of energy toward healing. It gives your ECS a boost so you can shift out of fight or flight, freeing up your cells to work on recovery. 

Calm your body, reclaim your brain. That’s CBD in a nutshell. 

As I said, no catch. Just biology. 

In addition to my applied nutrition and supplement regimens, CBD has helped my patients in their paths to recovery from addiction, psychiatric medication withdrawal, and mental illness. These conditions often having a strong stress component. 

For those struggling with the repercussions of the stress so endemic to our society or attempting to taper off  of psychiatric medication, I recommend CBD, especially in the form of full spectrum hemp oil extract. 

P.S. Want to know the advantage of full spectrum hemp over CBD isolate? Did you even know that both are sold as CBD, but that there’s a difference? See my blog on the Entourage Effect

Sources and Further Reading:


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