How CBD Works—The Endocannabinoid System
Today, CBD is hailed by consumers for a massive variety of benefits, from its purported benefits for sleep, stress, and mood, to its alleged properties to relieve pain, aid digestion, and enhance joint mobility.
If you’ve seen or heard the list of benefits associated with CBD, you may ask yourself: How can a single compound produce so many seemingly unrelated benefits for the body and brain?
In the 1990s, researchers undertook an experiment to answer this very question, and found the answer in the endocannabinoid system–also known as the “endogenous cannabinoid system,” and referred to as the ECS.
As it turns out, the human body actually produces–and relies upon–its own endocannabinoids in order to function properly and maintain homeostasis: an optimal state of biological balance that creates a stable internal environment in which all of our physiological systems function properly. The ECS is made up of three components:
- Endocannabinoids. “Endo” is the prefix for within, and endocannabinoids share the same shape and function as phytocannabinoids (“phyto” as in plant-derived) such as CBD. Our body is built to produce endocannabinoids with or without the help of CBD. These endocannabinoids include anandamide and 2-AG, which are produced naturally within the human body, and act as chemical messengers that send signals when certain physiological processes are thrown out of balance, before targeting the affected receptors to restore proper functioning.
- Cannabinoid Receptors, which are found on cell surfaces, and interact with cannabinoids–including the body’s own endocannabinoids, and phytocannabinoids such as CBD–in a lock-and-key fashion.
- CB1 receptors are found primarily in the central nervous system, as well as in the reproductive system, connective tissues, and organs.
- CB2 receptors are found in the immune system and peripheral nervous system, as well as in the internal organs, tissues, the gastrointestinal system, and the spleen.
- Finally, the ECS is made up of enzymes that are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids after they have fulfilled their functions.
With the discovery of the ECS, subsequent researchers confirmed that our body actually needs cannabinoids to function optimally. Our body partially fulfills this need by producing its own, naturally-occurring endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoid Deficiency. However, due to common lifestyle factors–such as stress, genetics, inadequate sleep, enzyme levels, and certain mental or physical proclivities–we can become endocannabinoid deficient, just as we can become deficient in other vitamins that our body produces–such as Vitamin D, Vitamin B, and many more–due to external factors. Ever heard of seasonal depression (SAD), which results in low moods during the fall and winter due to a lack of sunlight needed to help the body produce Vitamin D? That’s a perfect example, and it’s often recommended that we stave off seasonal depression by supplementing with Vitamin D capsules derived from external sources.
This is the same idea behind CBD supplementation: when your body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids due to common, external factors beyond your control, supplementing with CBD helps replenish cannabinoid levels in the body, and, in turn, helps the endocannabinoid system restore balance and targets any physiological systems that may have been thrown off due to endocannabinoid deficiency. A deficiency in endocannabinoids–like a deficiency in any other vitamin produced by the body–may result in symptoms, while the use of exogenous supplements to replenish levels of that vitamin in the body–whether its CBD, Vitamin D or Vitamin C–may result in symptom relief.
But due to the stigma and legal complications discussed above, awareness of the body’s need for cannabinoids hasn’t been revealed until relatively recently, whereas other vitamin deficiencies and the attendant symptoms have been well-understood for far longer.
The ECS in Everyday Life
Like any other bodily system, the ECS is a critical part of our daily physiological and bodily processes, and governs the health factors that condition our everyday lives. The ECS is constantly striving to balance the countless bodily functions that it controls, and it influences critical aspects of our health including sleep, stress, mood, memory, inflammation, the immune system–and many, many more.
Whether or not you use CBD, the ECS is active in your body and constantly working to stabilize your health. The endocannabinoid system is, essentially, a balancing system, and constantly performs an internal balancing act to try to keep all of our bodily functions and physiological systems functioning in harmony–a state of biological stability in spite of external factors. And when external factors do take a toll on one of the functions that the ECS controls–say, for instance, you’ve had a hectic week at work, and you succumb to stress or trouble sleeping; or perhaps you’ve had an injury, and you experience painful inflammation–the endocannabinoids within the ECS send signals to the brain that something is off, before binding with the receptors on the cells in the affected area–whether it’s the area associated with the systems that regulate stress, sleep, or inflammation and pain–to rebalance those systems and get your symptoms under control. Again, this is how the ECS works to keep your health in check, whether or not you use cannabis of any kind–and this illustrates precisely how important cannabinoids are to the most critical aspects of our health and the everyday bodily functions that keep us going.
Foods and Activities that Boost the ECS. With certain foods and activities, it’s possible to boost the ECS without CBD. Remember anandamide, one of the endocannabinoids that the ECS relies upon to keep your bodily functions in balance? Anandamide is also released after strenuous exercise, and is responsible for the “runner’s high” associated with the boost in mood and reduced anxiety that you feel after a workout. Certain foods can also boost the ECS, including hemp seeds and hemp seed oil; walnuts; flax seeds; eggs; chia seeds; and anything containing omega-3 fatty acids.
Ways CBD Interacts with the ECS
As evidenced by the exhaustive list of benefits associated with CBD, this compound interacts with the ECS in a huge variety of ways, all associated with diverse aspects of our health. Below are just a few examples of the systems that CBD helps the ECS keep in check:
The ECS is critical to the proper functioning of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and a complex network of nerves, all of which contain cannabinoid receptors on their cellular surfaces. The brain controls all of our body’s systems and functions, and the nervous system is what allows for the transmission of messages between brain and body to facilitate those functions and put those systems into motion. Through its interaction with the ECS, CBD has important effects on the nervous system that may lead to a variety of important health benefits in arguably the most important region of the body, when it comes to our overall health. When you consume CBD, it interacts with the cannabinoid receptors located throughout the nervous system to keep those systems in check, thereby promoting optimal cellular function, and protecting the nerves from damage while facilitating nerve cell regeneration where damage has occurred.
This is why CBD is suggested to help certain forms of pain–such as nerve pain–and conditions that impact the nervous system. CBD’s benefits for the nervous system include its purported ability to reduce inflammation and pain (including neuropathic pain), manage neurological disorders, reduce spasms, support healthy cognitive function, improve sleep, reduce nausea, and improve various aspects of our mental health. Scientists have suggested that many common mental health issues result from deficiencies in neurochemicals transmitted between the body and brain. Through its interaction with the nervous system, CBD may support or rebalance the transmission of these neurochemicals that are crucial to mental health, such as serotonin, which is associated with feelings of happiness and wellbeing; dopamine, which is associated with motivation, focus, energy, productivity, pleasure, and task-completion; and many more. This is why CBD is associated with so many alleged mental health benefits.
The ECS is also involved in the regulation of the cardiovascular system, which is why CBD may help support heart health and proper blood flow. Studies have suggested that CBD may lower blood pressure and prevent spikes in blood pressure and heart rate triggered by stress. The healthy functioning of the cardiovascular system is also crucial to reducing the risk of stroke, and some studies have suggested that CBD may help mitigate stroke-induced brain damage or even aid recovery. Other studies suggest that CBD’s ability to reduce inflammation may help lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation in blood vessels and arteries, and aid the management of weight-issues associated with heart risks.
The ECS is intimately involved in the immune system, with cannabinoid receptors found throughout immune system cells. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, CBD may strengthen the immune system by working as an immunosuppressant–which involves regulating the immune system’s overreactivity when, in response to threats, it triggers unnecessary and problematic levels of inflammation–and as an immunomodulator, which supports the immune system by altering and improving the way that the immune system responds to threats.
Gut and Gastrointestinal System
Because cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the GI tract, CBD is also associated with benefits for digestive, GI, and gut health. The majority of issues with gut and gastrointestinal health are associated with inflammation, and CBD is suggested to reduce inflammation throughout the gastrointestinal system. This has led researchers to examine and suggest that CBD could help in the management of related symptoms associated with ulcerative colitis, forms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) including Chron’s, acid reflux or GERD, and other gut health and digestive issues.
The ECS is also involved in the regulation of the endocrine system, and as a result, CBD is suggested to support endocrine system health. The endocrine system is responsible for the regulation, transmission, and regulation of hormones that impact mood, metabolism, energy levels, reproduction and fertility, and the body’s responses to injury, stress, and mood. In addition to benefiting these aspects of health, CBD has become increasingly popular among women seeking to regulate hormones in the management of symptoms related to menopause and postmenopause; and issues related to PMS (premenstrual syndrome). The endocrine system is also responsible for the regulation of hormones such as cortisol, which is why CBD may reduce stress, and melatonin, which is one of the reasons CBD may support healthy sleep.