CBD (or cannabidiol), an active chemical found in cannabis (marijuana) and hemp, is a bona fide wellness rock star these days, popping up in everything from supplements to smoothies and skin-care products. But how exactly does it work?
All About CBD
Unlike another active chemical found in cannabis (but not hemp) called THC, CBD is not psychoactive and doesn’t produce the ‘high’ people associate with marijuana.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “in humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…To date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
On the contrary, CBD actually seems to support our health and well-being in a multitude of ways.
In recent years, CBD garnered attention for its ability to support our body’s natural balance—especially when it comes to issues like mood and sleep. In fact, preliminary research even suggests it can support our body’s natural immune response and a healthy nervous system.
As curiosity and excitement around CBD skyrocket, though, so, too, do questions about how it works. That’s where the endocannabinoid system comes in.
What Is The Endocannabinoid System?
Despite evolving 500 million years ago, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) has only recently demanded the attention of scientists.
Its main function: to maintain bodily homeostasis, or our biological harmony and balance in response to changes in the environment.
“The body is like a machine, dependent on each system to function at its best,” explains Jacqueline Montoya, M.D., a double-board certified physician and Chief Medical Officer for CBDFit. “The ECS system is a modulatory system that helps our other body system function so we maintain balance. It helps regulate appetite, digestion, energy, reproduction, muscle control, memory, and the modulation of pain, sleep and stress.”
In a nutshell: When you get slammed with a crazy work project or spend the night up with your sick kid, you experience increased levels of stress and anxiety. That’s when the ECS steps in to restore homeostasis and prevent this stress from totally throwing you off.
How the Endocannabinoid System Works
The ECS involves three features:
- cannabinoids and endocannabinoids (cannabinoids our body creates)
- receptors throughout the nervous system that cannabinoids and endocannabinoids bond with
- enzymes that help break down cannabinoids and endocannabinoids
Though researchers long believed endocannabinoid receptors existed only in our brain and nervous system, they’ve now been identified everywhere from our immune cells to our gut to our muscles.
The receptors in our central nervous system (which consists of the brain and spinal cord) are called CB1 receptors. Meanwhile, the receptors found in our peripheral nervous system (the nerves that branch off our spinal cord and extend to the rest of the body) are called CB2 receptors.
These receptors “interact with almost every other system in the body, primarily the nervous and immune systems,” Montoya explains.
Researchers also long believed only THC could activate the ECS. However, now we know that other cannabinoids—like CBD—can also work with the ECS to contribute to optimal wellness.
When cannabinoids interact with ECS receptors, they help us regulate appetite, digestion, energy, muscle control, memory, pain, sleep, and stress, explains Montoya.
Why The Interest In The ECS Right Now?
The ECS has always been around to help our bodies maintain balance—which modern life has made harder to hold onto.
“There are so many negative factors in our external environments that can poorly affect our health,” Montoya notes. (A couple worth mentioning: technology-related stress and anxiety and sedentary lifestyles, which spur hormonal imbalances and both mental and physical decline.)
Related: 5 Ways Stress Can Impact Your Health
“I believe more and more that people are trying their best to avoid these things, but some are just unavoidable,” says Montoya. As a result, more and more of us seek natural ways to support our health.
“If we can provide our body with the tools it needs to continue to monitor and support itself, we can strive for optimal health,” Montoya says. “Supporting the ECS may be one of these tools.”
What We Still Have To Learn About The ECS
Now that the door into endocannabinoid science has been opened, researchers are eager to continue to learn.
Since the ECS modulates our neurotransmitter function, Montoya says further research will investigate how cannabinoids impact our brain function.
Other topics of interest: how the ECS (and phytocannabinoids) impacts our metabolism, hunger, and even fertility.
The bottom line: “The ECS system needs to function optimally for us to function at our best,” Montoya says.