How Does CBD Work?
by Deb Powers
Cannabidiol—better known as CBD—is making an appearance in just about everything from face creams to cocktails. Celebrities, chefs, and media personalities are all extolling its many benefits, which range from helping you relax to fighting cancer. Among the benefits claimed for CBD are helping you sleep, improving your digestion—and helping you lose weight, relieving pain, reducing anxiety and shrinking tumors. And these aren’t just vague claims. A growing body of research seems to back up many of them. So exactly how does CBD work, and can it really help with all of these seemingly unrelated ailments? There’s a scientific explanation that helps it all make sense.
What Is CBD?
Let’s start at the beginning—what exactly is CBD? It’s short for cannabidiol, one of the more than 500 constituents found in cannabis and hemp, among other plants. Of these, scientists have identified 104 cannabinoids, compounds found in cannabis that have an effect on the human body. Unlike its best-known cousin, tetrahydrocannabinol— better known as THC—CBD doesn’t have any psychotropic effects. It won’t get you high, but researchers have found that it can affect your moods, ease pain, reduce nausea and inhibit inflammation, among numerous other possible positive effects. While still working out exactly how CBD works, scientists have made great strides during the past 20 or so years in understanding how CBD works its magic.
CBD and the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
Cultures throughout history and around the world have used cannabis medicinally for thousands of years, so why the sudden leap in understanding in just the past two decades? Until the early 1990s, most research focused on figuring out the psychotropic effects of the plant. That started changing in 1988, when researchers at St. Louis University School of Medicine discovered that receptor sites in the brain interacted with compounds found in cannabis. Over the next couple of years, scientists located those receptors and a second type of cannabinoid receptor in the human brain. In fact, they found that not only are cannabinoid receptors the most plentiful type of neurotransmitter in the brain, but they’re also found throughout the body in nearly every single cell. They also found that the human body produces substances that bind to and interact with these receptors. Since they’re similar to the cannabinoids found in plants, but are made in the human body, scientists named these endocannabinoids. The endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors, taken together, make up an entire endocannabinoid system—and this discovery has kicked off an exciting wave of discoveries about the medicinal properties and benefits of CBD.
What Does the ECS Do?
The main purpose of the ECS appears to be maintaining homeostasis in the body. In plain English, the endocannabinoid system helps each cell maintain the proper interior balance of chemicals no matter what the conditions are outside the cell’s walls. That’s still a little esoteric, but Aaron Cardena, the founder of CBD Origin newsletter, offers a helpful example using the stress hormone cortisol. When you’re in danger, your body releases cortisol, which makes more glucose available to your brain and elsewhere and increases the chemicals in your blood that help repair injured tissue. When your cells sense the increase in cortisol, they respond by expressing endocannabinoids that reduce or block the action of that cortisol. It’s supposed to be a self-limiting cycle—your body ramps up to deal with perceived danger, and when the danger has passed, it cycles back down to bring everything back to normal.
That’s the endocannabinoid system at work in just one instance. It works in similar ways to dull pain, reduces inflammation, decreases or increase hunger—in fact, the ECS is responsible for a great deal of the signaling that happens between the cells in your body. It’s all well and good when the ECS is functioning properly—but when it malfunctions, the long-term effects can be pretty heavy. According to the Mayo Clinic, the effects of chronic stress—just as one example—include:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
How CBD Affects the Endocannabinoid System
Here’s where CBD comes into play. Cannabidiol is so similar to the natural substances produced by your body that it tricks your cells into reacting in the same way. In other words, it enhances your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis, which is a key element to wellness. When you introduce CBD into your body, either by eating it, inhaling it or absorbing it through your skin, it augments or takes the place of the endocannabinoids your body isn’t producing. Since the ECS seems to control neurotransmitter signaling in nearly every system in your body, CBD may hold the key to treating illnesses and ailments that affect everything from your nervous system to your digestive system to your immune system.
Does CBD Get You High?
In a word, nope. As noted earlier, CBD isn’t psychotropic—it doesn’t interact with the CBD receptors that produce that buzzy, fuzzy, hallucinogenic effect. As to how CBD feels, one enthusiast probably described it best when he said that it’s more about what you don’t feel when you use CBD. Most people who use it say they feel less pain, less anxiety, less depression, less nausea.
The other thing you’re not likely to feel when you use CBD is the nasty side effects that often come with other pharmaceutical treatments. Recent research confirms that CBD has very few minor side effects—and most people don’t experience any at all. If you’ve been curious about trying CBD for pain relief, anxiety or just general wellness, that’s the good news you’ve been waiting to hear.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer living and working in Massachusetts. She writes frequently about health, wellness and lifestyle topics.