Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a component of cannabis. You may know this plant by the more familiar term marijuana. CBD is the most-studied compound from this plant for medical purposes. Its success in treating certain symptoms is why CBD oil has been legalized in most states even if medical marijuana is still illegal.
Part of this reason is that CBD doesn’t get you high. But just what does CBD oil do in the brain and body? Let’s break down the science.
The Endocannabinoid System
Cannabis-derived compounds are called cannabinoids. You may be surprised to know that our bodies work very well with cannabis compounds. We even make and use our own versions of these for all sorts of reasons through our endocannabinoid system. This system isn’t just in your brain. Many of the body’s tissues have receptors that work with these chemicals.
When you load your vape pen with CBD oil and take a puff, CBD gains access to your bloodstream and works with these receptors in complicated ways to deliver its effects. The easiest way to think about it is like a key in a lock. When any neurochemical links with a receptor, it can either activate something (think your car’s ignition) or it can block something else (like a peg in a hole).
CBD is responsible for the calming effects of cannabis use. This is why it is used for things like anxiety, stress, and insomnia. It also has positive results for depression. The likely reason is because CBD interacts with our serotonin receptors.
Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter responsible for a number of things. It has been linked to our feelings of general happiness. When serotonin is too low, it causes mood, memory, and sleep issues. It can even make you crave carbs.
CBD acts as a sort of serotonin replacement. By activating our body’s serotonin 1A receptors, CBD improves these symptoms. Strong activation of this receptor also decreases nausea and even pain perception.
Unlike an SSRI, a class of drugs used to treat depression, CBD doesn’t prevent the breakdown of serotonin. Think of it like another key that can turn the same lock.
Another channel that CBD uses is the TRPV1 receptor. This receptor plays a role in inflammation and pain control. The reduction of inflammation in the body is important in the treatment in a lot of conditions. Chronic low-grade inflammation has been linked to everything from heart disease to Alzheimer’s.
One endocannabinoid we create is called anandamide. This chemical was discovered when after study of our CB1 and CB2 receptors. These are the ones responsible for the high we get from THC. Scientists surmised that something we make had to interact with these.
This chemical is still being studied, but one of the things it does help with is seizures. CBD interferes with the breakdown of anandamide because it binds with certain fatty compounds necessary to move anandamide into cells. Unlike most neurotransmitters, both CBD and anandamide (and THC for that matter) dissolve in fat instead of water. Scientists are researching how interfering with this fat-based transmission mechanism can improve seizure treatments.
Opioids are second-to-none for blocking pain, but they are addictive. Animal studies have shown that CBD can fight against addictions. But it’s not just for opioids. It also works for stimulants like nicotine and even cannabis withdrawal. Yes, CBD even interferes with THC! Think about that the next time you use your dry herb vaporizer.
As an aside, there are theories that cannabis works best when there are a variety of cannabinoids working together in the body. There are around 60 of these chemicals identified in cannabis species. Study of these compounds is far behind other neurological chemicals because it used to be illegal to study cannabis. But science is starting to catch up.
It used to be thought that the brain stopped growing after a certain point and then never changed. That turned out to be completely wrong. Our brains are changing and producing new brain cells. Indeed, if our brains couldn’t change we would be able to have memories.
Age-related cognitive decline and some forms of dementia have been linked to a reduction in brain plasticity and new cell generation. CBD appears to increase these, though it’s uncertain whether it’s because it’s a direct effect or because it controls inflammation in the brain that slow these processes down. If long-term CBD use could show a reduction in the chance of dementia, that would be a huge boon to humanity.
As more universities gain legal access to cannabis, we expect to see a boom of research. Eventually, any doctor in the states may be able to prescribe a certain blend of cannabinoids for specific issues. But until then, research is showing that CBD has quite a positive effect on our brains.
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