During my research on these specific topics, I was amazed by the immediate connection between CBD and the brain and the way it collaborates with the endocannabinoid system.
There are a lot of people asking me questions about how cannabidiol affects human brain. These questions are the reason I decided to write this article.
Fasten your seatbelts because we are about to start our journey into the most unexplored part of our body: our brain.
How did it all start?
If we said that the science of the brain is complicated, it would be a fairly mild statement. Our knowledge of astrophysics, quanta, nuclear physics and all this scientific stuff is much broader than our knowledge of the human brain and its functions.
We have traveled to the stars
Yet, things seem to be changing.
It all started when a “bunch” of open-minded and stubborn (!!!!) scientists who decided to focus their research efforts on a plant used as a medicine for thousands of years: Cannabis
[Chinese medical texts document Cannabis as a cure-all. Unfortunately it has had a lot of enemies. Modern medicine, politics, religion (to name some) are forces responsible for the international witch hunt against it. I’ll come back with juicy details on this.]
The first scientific breakthrough was made in the early ‘60s , when a group of Israeli scientists led by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam studying the cannabinoids, managed to isolate and identify the chemical structures of Cannabidiol (CBD, 1963) and Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC,1964).
That was the stepping stone in discovering an endogenous (= originating, produced within an organism, existing in an organism) system present in all living creatures with vertebrae; in a few words, every animal except insects!! This system started evolving around 600 million years ago when complex life forms were sponges!!
The term Endocannabinoid System, used to name this system, derives from
- Endo (short from endogenous)
- Cannabinoid (chosen to “honor” the cannabis plant, the term refers to the compounds that activate the system)
The discovery of the ECS has triggered a growing scientific interest and research regarding the way cannabinoids interact with human brain and a revolution on preventing and healing health issues with the use of phytocannabinoids like CBD.
The Endocannabinoid System
Even though there is, still, a lot we don’t know about it, the human endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of cannabinoid receptors situated on the cells and spread throughout our entire body.
These receptors are linked to the human nervous system, which itself is linked to the brain.
It controls a major part of the brain and other systems of the body:
- Hypothalamus (keeps the body in homeostasis (balance) as much as possible).
- Pineal gland (produces and regulates hormones, including melatonin which is known to regulate sleep patterns).
- Parathyroid glands (control the calcium in our blood and bones).
- Thyroid gland (plays a major role in the metabolism, growth and development of our body)
- Thymus (plays an important role in the development of a normal, healthy immune system).
- Pituitary gland (produces hormones that help regulate the functions of other endocrine glands)
- Pancreas ( helps in digestion and regulates blood sugar)
- Adrenal glands (produce hormones that help the body control blood sugar, burn protein and fat, react to stress factors like a major illness or injury, and regulate blood pressure)
- Kidneys (remove dangerous toxins and excess water from the blood through urine, regulate blood pressure, red blood cell and acid balance)
- Ovaries (produce and release eggs along with oestrogen and progesterone.
The list of the brain and body systems controlled by the ECS is more than impressive. It is obvious that it’s important for our health to have a balanced endocannabinoid system. It’s vital to have endocannabinoids doing their magic in our body and to supplement them with phytocannabinoids like CBD.
What exactly is the Endocannabinoid System
The ECS is formed by receptors and cannabinoids
Scientists explain that agonists are bound to receptors in order to give the cell specific instructions
Confused? So am I. Let’s simplify the whole thing a bit.
Imagine that a Receptor is a Lock.
Every Lock has a corresponding Key (agonist)
The role of the keys, which in our case are the cannabinoids, is to deliver a message with instructions to the cell.
The endocannabinoid system has two known Receptors :
Cannabinoid Receptors 1 (CB1) They are found mainly in the brain, the spinal cord and nerve endings where they can act to reduce the feeling of pain.
Their presence is concentrated in areas associated with the behaviors they have an impact on, such as the hypothalamus (regulates appetite) and the amygdala (memory and emotional processing). They are associated with mood, behavior, perception and cognition among others.
Cannabinoid Receptors 2 (CB2) They are found in immune cells and the peripheral nervous system. They reduce inflammation and impact on the immune system
There are two types of cannabinoids.
Endogenous (or endocannabinoids ) are produced by the body itself. Unfortunately, they are broken down at a high speed by enzymes like FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) and MAGL (monoacylglycerol lipase). This means they don’t stay in our body for a long period of time. The two of them we understand better are:
- Anandamide (AEA). Possibly one the most crucial endocannabinoids, it is our body’s own antidepressant. Some scientists suggest it is useful in combating and inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.
- 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). It is present at relatively high levels in the central nervous system. Its role is to regulate the circulatory system.
Endogenous cannabinoids are produced to activate essential body functions. According to Ethan Russo
such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine etc.
How can we combat endocannabinoid deficiency? This is where exogenous cannabinoids come into play.
Exogenous cannabinoids are either
- phytocannabinoids (found in cannabis products) or
- synthetic cannabinoids ( human-made mind-altering chemicals with severe side effects; they can cause from hallucination and paranoia to acute psychosis, brain damage and death)
In contrast with the endocannabinoids, exogenous cannabinoids remain in our body for longer periods of time. They activate our ECS more intensively, allowing it to be more productive that it would usually be.
The most famous phytocannabinoids are THC and CBD.
THC is psychoactive and it has psychological effects. Yet, it has been found that helps with many health issues such as nausea, appetite, asthma and glaucoma. There is proof that THC works against cancer and long-term neuropathic pain.It also slows the growth of several cancers.
CBD is the less known cannabinoid. It is non-psychoactive and acts on a physiological level. It aids in inhibiting tumour growth. It reduces or prevents inflammation. Nausea, diabetes, PTSD, schizophrenia, arthritis, epilepsy, stress disorders are only some of the ailments it helps with.
It’s obvious that both THC and CBD are important to treat serious diseases. But there is a problem. How can we cope with the psychoactive effects of THC?
The Entourage Effect
CBD and THC are like siblings. And just like two brothers or sisters, they either work together in perfect synergy or combat each other.
THC has a symbiotic effect on the body when it is combined with CBD.
As you can see, CBD does not actually bind to any of the CB1 and CB2 receptors but instead it suppresses the enzyme FAAH (or ‘fatty acid amide hydroxylase’) which is responsible for destroying anandamide.
So what? (I can hear you !)
With FAAH out of the way, more anandamide stays in our system and for longer periods of time.
Anandamide binds to the CB1 receptor ( as THC does). With the anandamide-Key on the receptor-Lock, there are the least possible openings for THC to bind to. As a result its psychoactive effects are dampened.
Furthermore, a 2015 study showed that CBD binds to a site on the CB1 receptor different from the THC binding site. From this site, it is able to change the shape of the receptor and cause less THC binding and reduces the efficacy and potency of THC.
But when CBD and THC are combined, magic happens. The term entourage effect is used to describe the fact that each of these magnificent substances enhances the positive qualities of the other.
For instance, while THC is known to cause stress and anxiety, when it is combined with CBD can cause relaxation and positive feelings. Furthermore, the pain killing properties of THC are improved when it’s mixed with CBD.
CBD and its Behavior in the Brain
Even though CBD doesn’t directly bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors, it collaborates directly with other receptor systems to provide its beneficial effects:
- Serotonin receptor system. It affects mood, appetite and cognition. It regulates the production of cortisol (affects the metabolism and reactions to stress) and oxytocin( responsible for social behavior.CBD enhances serotonin receptors. This supports the theory that CBD can treat ailments like neuropathic pain and schizophrenia
- Vanilloid Receptor system. It regulates our body’s temperature, inflammation and pain perception.
- Orphan Receptor System. It modulates blood pressure and bone density. It is responsible for the multiplication and migration of cancer cells. In case of hyper activation, it causes osteoporosis. By blocking the ORS, CBD eliminates the potential health issues it can cause.
- Nuclear receptor system. Its activation by CBD produces an anticancer effect and causes tumors to regress.
Neurological and healing effects of CBD
Even though scientific research concerning the impact of CBD on the brain is still in embryonic stage, there are several findings that confirm its beneficial effects.
- It reduces inflammation of the neurons and protects them from degeneration.
- Research has brought evidence that it hinders the development of Alzheimer’s disease
- It helps suppress pain. Scientists suggest that it can be used to treat chronic pain.
- It inhibits the growth of tumor cells.
- It reduces anxiety by reducing amygdala activity
- It improves the mood by promoting neurogenesis
- It acts as a neuroprotectant preventing oxidative stress (= imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body) and excitotoxicity (=excessive neural activity). Studies show it has potential therapeutic effects on Parkinson’s disease
- CBD can reduce symptoms of psychosis by “resetting” activity in certain brain areas. This is the first step towards an explanation of how CBD works in the brain to counteract psychosis that could generate new treatments for the disease.
- It readjusts brain activity to alleviate abnormal functions
- It has a significant impact on Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
The list is of the healing properties of CBD is long. A review of the neurological benefits of phytocannabinoids, published in 2018, describes in detail its numerous physical, psychological, and emotional benefits.
A light at the end of the tunnel
It’s difficult to understand the neurological effects of CBD because it interacts with various receptors in our body. Its complex, multi-target positive consequences may be the key to its potential as a therapeutic agent to several degenerative brain diseases.
Studies into the benefits of CBD for the brain are still underway, but the results have been positive.
Let’s be optimistic. It seems there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel that promises humanity a more healthy and less stressful life.
If you have any questions or want to share any personal experience, please, leave a comment below.
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DISCLAIMER: The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The information provided is not meant to alleviate or cure any disease or disorder. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider for any medical condition.