What is CBD, and how does it work?

What is CBD, and how does it work?

Research into cannabidiol’s effects on the brain has skyrocketed as fast as its consumer consumption - the global CBD market is said to have surpassed £2.2 billion in 2019, spanning across products from gummies, to oils, beauty products and even tampons in a bid to satisfy the ever-increasing demand.

We know that it interacts with our central nervous system, but with such an explosion in popularity, what process does our brain actually go through on CBD? And how can we harness that process to address disease and brain function?

What Makes CBD Different from THC?

Although CBD is a cannabinoid, it is not thought to have intoxicating effects like THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis. This is one of the main contributing factors to its influence in the medicinal sphere, as it won’t make users ‘high’ the same way a product containing THC might. 

While THC and CBD have similar molecular structures, there are slight differences in their atom arrangements. CBD binds to CB1 and CB2, two key receptors in the central nervous system, at a much slower rate than THC.

But there is still a lot going on in the brain under the influence of CBD - it has been found to activate specific neurons and receptors, such as dopamine and serotonin.

Cannabis trials have also provided insight into the effects of CBD and THC working together in the brain. When acting simultaneously, the two compounds are thought to have an ‘entourage effect’. This means that they complement each other’s beneficial properties, as well as levels of potency.

How Does it Work?

CBD undergoes a binding process in the brain that has four key effects:

  • Reduces blood flow: CBD has been shown to reduce blood flow in areas of the brain that are linked to anxiety, according to a study by the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2010, which could explain the compound’s calming effects.

  • Manages pain: Research from the Journal of Cannabis Research in 2021 suggests CBD changes the way our brains respond to pain signals, making managing pain and inflammation in the body much easier. It does this by allowing the body to release more endocannabinoids, a natural neurotransmitter produced by the brain, which drastically eases the symptoms of chronic pain. Our endocannabinoid system (ECS) is made up of numerous transmitters that bind to receptors throughout our central and peripheral nervous system, helping to regulate a variety of cognitive and physiological processes in the brain and body.

  • Reduces oxidative damage: Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species (ROS) in cells and tissues and the ability of the body’s biological system to detoxify these products. Studies have found that CBD acts on receptors in the brain to decrease the level of oxidative damage, which helps the body to heal and release tension through the production of antioxidants.

  • Antipsychotic properties: The medicinal properties of CBD have the potential to impact a range of neurological disorders, including psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. This is because CBD increases anandamide in the brain, which has been associated with decreases in psychotic symptoms.

  • Medicinal Qualities and Treatments

    From diabetes to sclerosis, research into the effects of cannabidiol on issues within the brain is ever-expanding.

    This includes symptoms of epilepsy, which CBD supports in two ways: it lowers the degree of excitation of cells in the brain that contribute to seizures, and it also stops the brain mechanisms that contribute to seizures by enhancing the release of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.

    A study from the British Paediatric Neurology Association showed CBD to reduce the occurrence of monthly seizures in children. Patients were given a cannabis oil extract from plants cultivated to have a CBD/THC ratio of 20:1, whereby over half of those had over a 50% reduction in mean monthly seizure frequency.

    There is also a growing awareness of the supportive effects of cannabidiol on Alzheimer’s, a cognitive disease that is thought to affect more than 1 in 9 people.

    Although no studies have shown that CBD can stop or slow the progression of the disease, there is research to suggest that it can help manage certain behavioural issues that can develop, such as aggression and agitation.

    One study found that a two-week course of high doses of CBD helped to restore the function of two proteins that are key to reducing the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque, a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.

    The cognition of participants was also improved in an experimental model of early-onset familial Alzheimer’s.

    How Can CBD Improve Mental Health?

    The medicinal properties of CBD have also been linked to supporting the symptoms and improving the quality of mental health issues.

    This has been highlighted in its anxiety-reducing effects - as a non-psychoactive compound, CBD has been praised for its capacity to calm.

    A study conducted by the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry in 2019 recorded the anxiety levels of 57 male participants in a simulated public speaking test. Some were given differing levels of CBD before their speeches while others received a placebo.

    Those who were given 300 milligrams of CBD were shown to experience significantly reduced levels of anxiety compared to those in the placebo group.

    Similarly, there has been evidence to suggest the positive effects of CBD on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Although there are preconceptions of PTSD impacting veterans with nightmarish flashbacks of wartime, the disorder is thought to affect at least 10% of people at some stage in their life.

    Cannabidiol has been shown to drastically reduce lingering symptoms of trauma amongst sufferers through its anxiety-reducing properties. A recent study saw 10 of 11 people experience a significant decline in PTSD symptoms after eight weeks on CBD, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

    Some research has even indicated that taking CBD directly after a traumatic event can help to slow down the progression of memories formed in the brain, making it less likely for symptoms of PTSD to develop. This is due to the endocannabinoid process and its effects on anxiety and memory, both of which are significant contributing factors in PTSD.

    The Future of CBD

    The CBD industry is constantly expanding, and it’s clear we’re just starting to scratch the surface of research into understanding its effects on the brain.

    With its non-psychoactive properties and medicinal qualities, the evolution of cannabidiol as a treatment for neurological, cognitive, and recessive disorders holds huge potential for future advancements in mental healthcare.

    Disclaimer: Please consult your healthcare provider before taking CBD for medicinal purposes.

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