While CBD’s effects may be fast-acting, they actually develop through a complex network of cell receptors known as the endocannabinoid system, or the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS). Through direct and indirect interactions with receptors throughout the brain and nervous system, CBD is able to quickly and effectively influence sensations like mood, pain, and appetite.
In order to produce its array of therapeutic health benefits, CBD needs to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. The ECS features a network of receptors located on cell membranes throughout the body, which are also expressed by mitochondria and nuclei. This network interacts with internal cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) and external cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) in order to broadcast retrograde synaptic messages, influencing physiological processes as a result.
Over time, researchers have discovered that the endocannabinoid system is crucial to maintaining homeostasis (the balance between collaborating elements in the body). The endocannabinoid system is also responsible for neuromodulation and the development of the central nervous system. The cell receptors that comprise this system are located in the brain and peripheral nervous system.
Through their interactions with the endocannabinoid system, cannabinoids like CBD can influence things like stress, pain, mood, memory, and appetite. This is because many endocannabinoid cell receptors are located in parts of the brain associated with cognition, movement, and perception. Researchers have come to believe that our body was designed to interact with cannabinoids and that they may even have a role to play in our overall well-being.
Researchers discovered the first endocannabinoid inside the brain of a lab mouse in 1988. By 1993, more receptors had been found in the immune system. By 1995, these two classes of receptors had been discovered in humans, classified as CB1 and CB2 receptors.
CB1 and CB2 receptors are the primary targets of cannabinoids. It is through their interactions with these cell receptors that cannabinoids are able to induce their effects. All cannabinoids interact with these two cell receptors in some fashion, either binding with them directly like a key in a lock (like THC and CB1), or more indirectly, as we’ve come to understand with CBD. Perhaps unlike THC, CBD’s interaction with the ECS is more diverse and complex. Although CBD’s exact relationship with CB1 and CB2 is still being uncovered, the cannabinoid is believed to have more of an impact on the two receptors than it was thought to in the past.
Where we do start to understand more about CBD’s effects is in the realm of other cell receptors. CBD is know to have an affinity for the 5-HT receptor, PPAR (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor), and TRPV receptor.
5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors, otherwise known as serotonin receptors, are protein-coupled receptors found in the central and peripheral nervous systems. CBD’s interactions with these receptors result in a release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and glutamine. It is widely believed that serotonin deficiency plays a significant role in depression and depressive symptoms. A 2016 study found that CBD produced “fast and maintained anti-depressant effects” due, at least in part, to “significantly enhanced serotonin and glutamine levels”.
Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors are directly activated by cannabinoids. In conjunction with other receptors, PPARs play a role in the analgesic, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and cardiovascular effects produced by cannabinoids like CBD. Newer research suggests that cannabinoids are escorted towards PPAR by fatty acid binding proteins. There is also evidence that CBD has the potential to manipulate gene expression through its interactions with PPAR.
Transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1 (TRPV1) are cell receptors that play a significant role in pain and inflammation control. A 2015 animal study found that stimulating TRPV1 receptors with CBD resulted in an increased pain threshold and a reduction in joint inflammation. Due to these results, TRPV1 receptors are thought to be especially important in the treatment of arthritis with cannabis.
Research shows that CBD also plays a role in the production of anandamide and the maintenance of endocannabinoid levels in the body. Researchers believe that CBD binds to fatty acid binding proteins (FABP), reducing anandamide's access to these transport molecules and thus acting as a sort of anandamide reuptake inhibitor. This essentially means that CBD has the potential to raise anandamide levels in the body for sustained periods. This is one element researchers believe to be behind CBD’s current trend for use in childhood epilepsy in some countries.
Through its interactions with cell receptors in the endocannabinoid system, CBD is able to quickly and effectively deliver an array of therapeutic health benefits. Receptors in the brain and nervous system work in conjunction with cannabinoids like CBD to regulate a host of physiological functions.
CBD’s effects may vary from person to person. This is due to the fact that its effects are broad, indirect, and catalysed via such a complex network of cell receptors and synaptic messaging. For more information on getting started with CBD, check out our article on CBD dosage.