The Effects of CBD on the Endocannabinoid System

By Rich Hamilton
Published: September 25, 2019 | Last updated: April 9, 2021 07:15:26
Key Takeaways

Demand for cannabis is increasing exponentially, but what do we really know about how THC and CBD affects our minds and bodies? Rich Hamilton explains what we know so far, and why further research is so important.

As cannabis becomes more mainstream the science and terminology behind this plant and its benefits are becoming more widely known. With that said, anybody that knows anything about cannabis (and most that don’t) have heard of both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), but do you actually know what THC and CBD are, or what they do?


THC and CBD are, in fact, cannabinoids. These are the chemicals that give the cannabis plant its medical and recreational properties. There are thought to be more than 100 cannabinoids in cannabis, though THC and CBD are the most studied and potentially useful of these chemicals.

Through this article I want to walk you through what cannabinoids are, how they enter our system through the endocannabinoid system, and what the endocannabinoid system is.


Once this is all clear, we will be looking specifically at CBD and what affects this cannabinoid has on the body and mind. CBD is especially relevant to today’s world due to the research and findings that have emerged as to its medicinal and therapeutic properties.


Up until recently, THC is what most people have been interested in when buying cannabis because it is the rock star of the cannabinoid world. It’s the one that people either love or hate, the one that offends your parents and always gets the press. This is understandable, however, when you realize that THC is the cannabinoid that induces psychoactive effects and causes that classic high you experience when inhaling cannabis or eating edibles.

A change is coming, however, in the form of a cannabinoid — let’s call it the Knight in Shining Armor — that rescues kittens from burning buildings and helps your grandma cross the road. CBD has seen a real boom in recent years because it’s the compound showing the most promise of having benefits for a wide range of conditions such as pain, anxiety, and epilepsy, without inducing any of the psychoactive effects of THC.


So, strap yourself in as its all going to get a bit scientific. First, we need to understand what a cannabinoid is and what the human endocannabinoid system is.

Read also: Medicinal Marijuana & the Endocannabinoid Receptors: What We Know So Far


Cannabinoids and Cannabinoid Receptors

In 1988, a US-funded government study discovered a specific cannabinoid receptor in the brain of rats. The receptor consisted of specialized protein molecules embedded in cell membranes and responded to compounds in the cannabis resin. It was named cannabinoid-1 receptor (CB1). A second receptor, cannabinoid-2 receptor (CB2), was found to reside right across the body in the immune system, the nervous system, the gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood vessels, lymph cells, endocrine glands, and even the reproductive organs.

CB1 is believed to help with the regulation of psycho-activity while CB2 is thought to assist in immune response. Cannabinoid receptors work by acting as minute vibrating sensors that pick up biochemical cues flowing through fluids surrounding each cell.

Cannabinoid receptors are unlike any other neurotransmitter as they perform retrograde signaling. What on earth is retrograde signaling? Retrograde signaling is a form of communication that inhibits and reduces your body’s responses, calming and soothing the mind and body. For example, they can lower blood pressure, relax muscles and nerves, and basically chill the body out, restoring balance and bringing us peace.

Still with me? Good. Now, lets have a look at what an endocannabinoid is.


Research into cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors led to the findings of a natural THC-like compound that existed within our bodies in the form of naturally occurring neurotransmitters (molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages from neutrons to muscles) that attached to the same brain cell receptors as THC. These neurotransmitters would become known as endocannabinoids, which are natural cannabinoids made by the body to keep the nervous system in check, acting like someone stepping on the brakes when confronted by any threats such as inflammation or stress.

Now, on to the endocannabinoid system.

The Endocannabinoid System

In 1995, researchers tracing the metabolic pathways of THC discovered a previously unknown molecular signaling system of receptors. This system is thought to be involved in regulating many biological functions and was named the endocannabinoid system after the plant that led to its discovery. The endocannabinoid system is thought to be present in every animal, except for insects, and has evolved over the last 600 million years. Evolutionary history indicates the endocannabinoid system must have a very important role to play in the physiology of animals and humans.

Endocannabinoids and their receptors continue to be researched today, paving the way for new treatment strategies for conditions including cancer, diabetes, neuralgia, arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and depression. It has been proven that cannabinoid compounds can affect the progression of disease and halt or slow down symptoms, while other experiments have proved that CB-receptor signaling could help adjust pain, inflammation, appetite, digestion, and sleep cycles. They also work as modulators for other mood-altering neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate.

We know cannabinoid receptors within our body’s endocannabinoid system are only triggered by two things: natural endocannabinoids produced by our own bodies and external cannabinoids found in the resin of the cannabis plants such as THC or CBD. Manipulating the endocannabinoid system by introducing external cannabinoids like CBD to the body can help reduce the symptoms of a wide range of conditions Let’s have a closer look at what effects introducing CBD to the body can have.

Read also: Treating Alzheimer’s with High-THC Cannabis Strains

CBD and its Effects on the Endocannabinoid System

CBD was first isolated in 1941 but it was not until 1963 that its structure could be established. Unlike THC, CBD was found to lack the genetic makeup to produce psychoactive effects, however, clinical trials on animals indicated that it had potential for management of inflammation, anxiety, nausea, inflammatory pain, and epilepsy, as well as offering both neuroprotective and antioxidant effects. CBD was also discovered to play a role alongside THC as a moderator, reducing the psychoactive and memory impairing effects of THC.

By stimulating the endocannabinoid system, CBD promotes homeostasis, reduces pain sensation, and decreases inflammation. There are many conditions CBD is believed to help alleviate including:

  • Pain
  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Inflammation
  • Acne
  • Psoriasis
  • Broken bones
  • Depression
  • Bacterial infections
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse/withdrawal symptoms
  • Heart disease
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

However, the way in which CBD works on the endocannabinoid system is very different to THC and this is due to the different cannabis receptors in the body. CB1 and CB2 may be alike in name but they perform very different functions within the human body.
CB1 receptors exist in high numbers in the brain and central nervous system (intestines, connective tissues, gonads, and various other glands).

CB2 receptors exist most commonly in the spleen, tonsils, thymus, and immune cells with only a small number existing in the brain. Changes in CB2 receptor function are seen with virtually every type of human disease whether it is cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurodegenerative, psychiatric, or autoimmune. It even plays a role in liver and kidney function, bone and skin health, cancer, and pain-related illnesses.

While THC has a strong instinct for both CB1 and CB2 receptors, CBD does not. It does not so much as bind with the receptors as activate other processes, meaning that many of the therapeutic benefits of CBD are created through indirect actions.

These indirect actions include activating receptors that work within the body to control important functions like pain perception, body temperature, and inflammation. CBD can also increase the amount of anandamide in the body. Meaning the “bliss molecule” in Sanskrit, anandamide plays a role in the neural generation of pleasure and motivation. It also affects our mood, appetite, energy levels, and sense of time.

CBD and THC Working in Harmony

It is thought that administering CBD and THC together can prove more beneficial than administering THC alone when treating a patient with a condition in which THC is an effective treatment. The patient may want the beneficial effects of the THC but not necessarily the psychoactive qualities, and there is definite proof that the ratio of THC to CBD in cannabis can dramatically affect the effect it has on brain function, psychotic side effects, and some medicinal properties.

There is a catch with modern strains, however, as THC content in many strains has risen considerably over the last few decades.

Cannabis produced today can have very different effects on mental health and brain function than it did years ago when original research was completed. Further scientific investigation of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system will only lead to a much richer and fuller understanding of the effects and medical opportunities that are provided by the constituents of the cannabis plant.


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Written by Rich Hamilton | Writer, Consultant, Author of The Growers Guide

Profile Picture of Rich Hamilton

Rich Hamilton has been in the hydroponics industry for more than 20 years, working originally as a general manager in a hydroponics retail outlet before becoming an account manager at Century Growsystems. He enjoys working on a daily basis with shop owners, manufacturers, distributors, and end users to develop premium products.

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