A recent survey commissioned by the Centre for Medical Cannabis indicates that 6 million people have tried CBD in the UK. This number of people giving CBD a try isn’t because of clever marketing, it’s because existing consumers have begun to share stories of how it has helped them. This, combined with the increasing amount of research being carried out, has provided millions of people with compelling reasons to try cannabidiol themselves.
While there is still much to learn, decades of previous research have already begun to develop our understanding of cannabinoids like CBD and THC. Previous research into cannabis was rare and often underfunded, but it did happen.
It introduced us to the idea that molecules found in cannabis can interact with the neurochemical system in our bodies. This was named ‘the endocannabinoid system’ (ECS). Now, we know that the ECS is crucial to the smooth running of many body functions and responds to the presence of cannabinoids.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system is a network of chemical receptors and molecules that allow your body’s homeostatic mechanisms to work effectively. These are mechanisms present to maintain the state of homeostasis in the body. Homeostasis is the healthy balance that your body maintains to keep you healthy.
The central heating system in your house responds to thermo-sensors and adjusts the heat coming from radiators to maintain your chosen temperature. Just like this, homeostatic mechanisms make adjustments to ensure that factors like heat, pH level and inflammation are all in balance.
The ECS helps your body to respond quickly to any changes by restoring the status quo. This could be following a temperature change or something more significant like inflammation caused by a disease.
The Isolation of CBD and THC
Before the discovery of the ECS, the focus of cannabis researchers remained on the plant itself. For over a century, since the late 1800s, scientists attempted to isolate the cannabinoids and describe their structure.
Eventually, in 1940 Robert Cahn and his colleagues were able to isolate CBD. However, its discovery was quickly overlooked when THC was extracted in 1942 and was considered to be more important.
For most of the twentieth century cannabis research was directed at THC because of its role in the ‘high’ produced by cannabis. It was presumed that the other cannabinoids, including CBD, were just inactive precursors of THC and incidental to the real work.
An understanding of the structure of CBD finally came in 1963 when Israeli chemist Dr Raphael Mechoulam successfully isolated it from cannabis. THC was also Isolated by Dr Mechoulam and his team in 1964. They went on to isolate many more cannabinoids and use their research to continue to learn more about THC and CBD.
Dr Mechoulam and his team are responsible for many of the breakthroughs in understanding that have resulted in CBD use becoming widespread. Because of his work with cannabis and his drive to increase the awareness of its positive effects he is often referred to as the ‘Grandfather of Cannabis Research’.
Throughout the decades of work on researching cannabis, the aim was first to isolate each cannabinoid and find a use for it in its own right. It seems a beautiful irony that within the last few years it has been discovered that the greatest effects can be unlocked when they are used together. This discovery was named the entourage effect.
Discovering the ECS
Research into cannabis and the effects of its components continued, but the next breakthrough came in 1988. Allyn Howlett and her research assistant William Devane discovered neurochemical receptors in the mammalian brain that could interact with cannabinoids.
These became known as CB1 receptors and are present in the brain and nervous system of all mammals. CB2 receptors were later discovered in other areas of the body linked to the peripheral nervous system.
In 1992 William Devane, now a molecular pharmacologist, and Dr Lumir Hanus discovered a molecule produced by the body that could bind with both CB1 and CB2 receptors. They realised that they had made the first discovery of a human cannabinoid (an endocannabinoid).
It is this endocannabinoid molecule that is responsible for the relaxed feeling you sometimes get after exercise. It was soon named ‘anandamide’ which means ‘bliss molecule’. It can only be found in the body of mammals and one plant. Unlike the cannabinoids that can be found in cannabis, anandamide is only present in animals or the cacao plant.
Together the receptors and human cannabinoid became known as the endocannabinoid system. Following its discovery, it was researched in detail and soon another signalling molecule was discovered. It was named 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). While both endocannabinoids have similar features, they interact with CB1 and CB2 in different ways.
How Does CBD Interact with the Endocannabinoid System?
The unique action of CBD is what makes it stand out from the other molecules found in cannabis. Most cannabinoids including THC, bind directly with either the CB1 or CB2 receptors. However, CBD works differently.
Instead, CBD improves the levels of anandamide present in your body. High levels of anandamide allow your homeostatic mechanisms to work effectively by allowing your body to respond quickly and efficiently to imbalances in your body. When you are feeling run down, stressed or unwell your body often has a low level of anandamide and is less able to effectively recover from the stress you are under.
When our body is put under any kind of stress from anxiety, tiredness, disease or chronic condition it produces anandamide to support your body’s responses. However, it is usually produced just for the immediate situation which means that it has a short life. Once it has completed its task it’s broken down by enzymes into its parts.
If CBD is present, it acts to prevent these enzymes from starting the breakdown of anandamide. Once the enzymes stop working, the level of anandamide builds up. Higher levels of anandamide allow your body to improve its wellbeing. CBD gives your body the tools it needs to provide its own support.
Studies suggest that CBD could have several benefits linked to the different chemical functions of the molecule. Most of these are thanks to its interaction with the endocannabinoid system.
Using CBD to increase the level of anandamide in your body is a great way to boost its efficiency. More endocannabinoids can improve your body’s ability to respond effectively to each new challenge.
While there is still so much to learn about our bodies, our current understanding of the endocannabinoid system indicates that CBD will prepare our bodies for a better day to day life.