Cannabis plants contain over 60, naturally occurring, active compounds called cannabinoids. Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of these compounds found in hemp and marijuana plants. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most well-known cannabinoid and is associated with marijuana’s psychoactive properties. Unlike THC, CBD does not cause a “high” effect and can offer relief and benefits without the disconcerting feelings of lethargy or dysphoria. How do cannabinoids interact with the human body and why do cannabinoids cause different effects? To answer this question, we must introduce the endocannabinoid system.
The Endocannabinoid System and how CBD works
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan poured tens of millions of dollars into a study to prove that marijuana damages the human brain. But, rather than showing how marijuana harms the brain, the Reagan administration ended up subsidizing a series of studies that culminated in the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a collection of cell receptors and the corresponding molecules (agonists) in the human body. This system helps to regulate sleep, appetite, mood, motor control, immune function, pleasure, pain, reproduction and fertility, memory and temperature regulation. When the ECS is in balance, one experiences homeostasis.
Endocannabinoids are the molecules that act as chemical messengers that bind to cannabinoid cell receptors and tell the body to do certain things. The human body naturally produces endocannabinoids with the help of consuming foods like fatty acids found in nuts and fish. The 60 cannabinoid molecules found in cannabis also have the ability to bind to cannabinoid receptors. Although different cannabinoids (like CBD and THC) cause different effects, it is all through the same system that similar molecular messages are sent throughout the body. Put more simply, the molecules found in cannabis plants aid in the human body’s endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for many vital functions.
CBD also appears to dampen down the psychoactive effects of THC, calming any uncomfortable anxiety or paranoia that THC can sometimes cause. CBD also appears to decrease short-term memory loss that can occur with THC use and CBD can also decrease the hunger often associated with cannabis use. CBD in low doses appears to be alerting and in high doses is sedating. CBD has not been reported to have any negative side effects! There appears to be no tolerance to the effects of CBD as it works differently than THC.
Cannabis has been used for thousands of years, both recreationally and medically. People all over the world know the effects of cannabis, yet until 20 years ago, no one knew how it worked within our bodies. In the early 1990s, research scientists identified a system they named “the endocannabinoid system”. This system is located in our brains and bodies. The system is made up of cell receptors and of the chemicals that bind to these receptors. This system has been identified in the some of the most primitive creatures on earth. It has been found to be the most widespread receptor system in the human body, explaining why cannabis has so many different effects. The endocannabinoid system appears to regulate many important physiologic pathways in the human body, including gastrointestinal activity, cardiovascular activity, pain perception, maintenance of bone mass, protection of neurons, hormonal regulation, metabolism control, immune function, inflammatory reactions, and inhibition of tumors cells.
The cannabinoid receptor system has two kinds of receptors:
• CB1 receptors – found mostly in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body including the heart, uterus, testis, liver, small intestine and peripheral cells
• CB2 receptors – found mostly on cells of the immune system, including the spleen, T-cells, B-cells and macrophages
A group of compounds, called cannabinoids, bind to the receptors. Cannabinoids come from three different places:
• Endocannabinoids – these are produced by the body on demand, usually in response to injury; five different endocannabinoids have been identified, including anandamide and 2-AG
• Synthetic cannabinoids – these are produced by scientists in a laboratory and include dronabinol (Marinol) and nabilone (Cesamet)
• Phytocannabinoids – these are produced by the cannabis plant; there are over 85 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, including THC and cannabidiol as the main two
The cannabinoids interact with the receptors, much like a lock and key. The receptor is the lock and the cannabinoid molecule is the key. When the cannabinoid “key” attaches to the receptor “lock” (located in the cell wall), a reaction is triggered resulting in an effect on the brain and body. For instance, the area of the brain that controls memories is called the amygdala. When cannabinoids bind to the receptors on the cells of the amygdala, memory is affected. For those that suffer from past traumatic events who relive horrible memories (such as those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the triggering of the cannabinoid receptor appears to change the brain function and memories are minimized.
A study using weakly radioactive THC-like synthetic drugs investigated where the human cannabinoid receptors were located. When people were given this radioactive drug and their brains were scanned, CB1 receptors were found all over the brain. The results showed that cannabinoid receptor binding sites in the human brain are localized mainly in: the forebrain areas associated with higher cognitive functions; the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain areas associated with the control of movement; and in hindbrain areas associated with the control of motor and sensory functions of the autonomic nervous system. This is consistent with the fact that cannabis has many different effects on mental function.
With state-sanctioned medical cannabis laws, we are seeing more studies in this arena and hopefully will gain full understanding of what patients and which conditions may benefit from the use of cannabis. For now, many patients are using natural cannabis for relief of conditions for which medications have not worked or have been too toxic.