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Because the CBD industry is still so new (including the research), there is a lot of controversy surrounding the efficacy of CBD. It’s tempting to dismiss the hype without taking a moment to understand what’s actually happening in our brain and body when we ingest or absorb CBD oil. The science is there to help us understand exactly how it works and the exciting therapeutic applications still being discovered.

Before we dive into how CBD works on our brain and body, let’s briefly review what CBD is. We’ve touched on it several times, but it never hurts to review. CBD, short for Cannabidiol, is one of the hundreds of cannabinoids present in the Cannabis plant. Different strains produce differing levels of CBD. Cannabis Sativa, commonly known as hemp, is high in CBD and low in THC. Conversely, Cannabis Indica is low in CBD and high in THC, the most famous member of the cannabinoid family and the one responsible for the feeling of getting high.

So how exactly does that work? Why one and not the other? Well, let’s talk science.

Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoids are a chemical compound found within the cannabis plant, the most famous of which are CBD and THC. The human body has two main classes of cannabinoid receptors found on the surface of cells throughout the central nervous system. These exist as part of the endocannabinoid system, a regulatory system with an essential role in central nervous system development and the body’s response to internal and external attacks. The ECS is made up of the cannabinoid receptors mentioned, endogenous (fancy word for internal or self-produced) cannabinoids (endocannabinoids), and the enzymes responsible for processing them. Source.

See, our brain consists of neurons, highly specialized cells connected by electrical pathways known as synapses. Neurons communicate via the synapses with various chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. It’s a complicated game of telephone. (Think tin cans and wire). Each neurotransmitter has a specific receptor to match. If the neuron is lacking the receptor, the message doesn’t get through.

Neurotransmitters can be naturally produced in our bodies (endogenous), like dopamine and serotonin, or externally produced, like THC and CBD. However you introduce the compound into your body, it hitches a ride to the appropriate target and binds to the neurons containing the matching receptor. The endocannabinoid system works with the central nervous system to regulate specific neurotransmitters.


THC has a high affinity for CB1, the ECS receptor located primarily in the brain (specifically the areas controlling memory process, pain regulation, and motor control), resulting in well-known effects of euphoria, relaxation, anxiety, and short-term memory impairment. Source.

On the other hand, CBD has a far less binding affinity to CB1 and CB2 (present primarily in the immune system, specifically white blood cells, tonsils, and spleen). Instead, CBD works on them indirectly, resulting in a slower, more modulated interaction without the high and acting as a blocker to THC, decreasing some of the negative side effects of the THC (anxiety and memory impairment.) This work in tandem with THC is most commonly known as the Entourage effect.

CBD’s Effect on the Brain

Where the research begins to get really interesting is when discussing CBD’s effects on non-cannabinoid receptors and other independent cell pathways. CBD can increase levels of the body’s naturally-produced cannabinoids (known as endocannabinoids) by inhibiting the enzymes that break them down. Scientists call this a reuptake and breakdown inhibitor.

Let’s dig into that a little deeper. For example, our body makes an endocannabinoid neurotransmitter known as anandamide, binding to the CB1 and CB2 receptors as described above. Essentially, CBD interrupts the process of breaking down the neurotransmitter by hitching a ride on the same fatty acids that would normally carry the chemical to the cell, preventing the neurotransmitter from catching that same ride. In that way, CBD acts as a reuptake inhibitor, increasing the levels of the anandamide in our body and enhancing the protective effects against seizures. In fact, studies have shown there are multiple targets for CBD in the brain that working together can act on lessening seizure activity.  Currently, the FDA has approved highly purified Cannabidiol (CBD) under the name Epidiolex® in the United States and as EPIDYOLEX in the EU. Epidiolex has been approved as a treatment for seizures associated with epileptic disorders. (Making this the first and only FDA-approved use for CBD).

The anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties of CBD are somewhat attributed to this same phenomenon. CBD also acts as a reuptake inhibitor on adenosine. By interrupting the breakdown process, CBD can increase levels of adenosine in the brain and the regulation of adenosine receptors. (Remember we talked about non-cannabinoid receptors?) So why is that important? These receptors target cardiovascular function (including oxygen intake and blood flow) and have anti-inflammatory effects. More adenosine equals less inflammation. Source.

Studies have also discovered that CBD targets another non-cannabinoid serotonin-specific receptor. Just as a refresher, serotonin is the primary hormone responsible for mood stabilization and feelings of overall happiness and assists with sleeping, eating, and the digestive process. CBD is known as a “modest affinity agonist,” which is fancy wording for something that initiates a physiological response in our body when combined with the receptors we’ve been discussing. Source. English pharmacologist and noted cannabinoid researcher Professor Roger Pertwee discusses the potential of CBD activating these serotonin receptors. (via Leafly).

“It’s apparent ability to enhance the activation of serotonin 1A receptors supports the possibility that it could be used to ameliorate disorders that include: opioid dependence, neuropathic pain, depression and anxiety disorders, nausea and vomiting (e.g. from chemotherapy), and negative symptoms of schizophrenia.”

So let’s review:

  • Humans possess an endocannabinoid system designed to help regulate chemical neurotransmitters within the central nervous system.
  • CBD works within the endocannabinoid system to interrupt the breakdown of the homegrown chemicals, increasing the levels of these naturally occurring compounds. (<Anandamide, adenosine, and serotonin, to name a few).
  • The resultant increase creates an additive effect-meaning the CBD can increase the physiological benefits already occurring from the various neurotransmitters.

What does all this mean? Well, there is still a lot of research to be done. While we know generally how it works, the clinical applications are still being studied as the largest body of work has been done in animals, not humans. Some good news? As we mentioned above, the FDA has approved CBD in the form of Epidiolex to treat certain seizure disorders. Research is continuing on the complex ability of CBD to precisely target the various receptors we’ve discussed (plus more) and what the therapeutic applications are for humans.

Part of the criticism surrounding CBD and its benefits is based on the lack of regulation surrounding the industry. As research continues to further our knowledge and understanding of this multi-tasking molecule and its powerful impact on our brain and body, make sure you are still abiding by our recommendations on purchasing high-quality CBD hemp oil products free from chemical additives and false advertising.


The statements made regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA-approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant as a substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your health care professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires this notice.