What You Need To Know About CBD and the Endocannabinoid System

Posted on January 22, 2018

CBD (short for cannabidiol) is a cannabinoid, but what is a cannabinoid? And how do cannabinoids affect you through the body's internal endocannabinoid system? Here are the answers to all that and more.

These questions can be a bit overwhelming, but developing a basic understanding of the science behind CBD can really help you get the most out of it. So, let's get scientific!

What’s a cannabinoid?

Cannabinoids are molecules. That means they are made up of atoms that are bonded together. Cannabinoids are made up of mostly hydrogen and carbon atoms, with a little oxygen thrown in for good measure. To be exact, the formula for CBD is C21 H30 O2.

On its own, there’s really nothing special about the CBD molecule. It is not a potion that works magic when you eat or smoke it. But when CBD molecules enter the human body and begin to interact with the cells inside your body, those cells change in a myriad of ways.

There are scores of different cannabinoids found in cannabis and produced by the body, each with its own distinct molecular configuration. Think of cannabinoids as keys on a ring. The keys all look extremely similar, but just slight variations in their shape allow them to unlock different effects.

CBD & THC Are Both Cannabinoids

The two most common cannabinoids in marijuana are THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC makes your brain mellow out. CBD makes the rest of your cells mellow out.

There are two families of cannabinoids - the ones your body makes, called endocannabinoids (endo being scientist code for human body-related), and phytocannabinoids, (phyto being scientist code for plant-related). There are numerous plants that produce cannabinoids. Hops, the flowers used to brew beer produce CBD, for example.

Well, as it turns out, phytocannabinoids are known to mimic some of the effects of endocannabinoids - and perhaps even have some effects of their own.

It’s important to point out that the two kinds of cannabinoids evolved together, and that the cannabinoids that we get from plants are just as important to our health as cannabinoids made by our own bodies. We need them both to be healthy.

So how do cannabinoids work?

What is the endocannabinoid system?

The human body has a vast system of cannabinoid receptors - microscopic sockets on the outsides of cells - called the endocannabinoid system, or ECS for short. Using the key analogy, the cannabinoid is the key, and the receptor is the lock.

There are two types of cannabinoid receptors - CB-1, and CB-2. Neuron cells in the brain and nervous system are packed with CB-1 receptors - those that are unlocked by THC - and all the other major organs and cell types have CB-2 receptors some of which have an affinity for CBD. They are also affected by THC, but since they located in the brain or nervous system, they don’t cause altered states of consciousness.

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

Each cannabinoid receptor in the ECS is like a tiny switch that can be flipped from outside the cell but controls what happens inside the cell. Depending on which cannabinoid flips which switch, the cells will take different actions.

Think of the nervous system as a giant control panel with scores of sensors that measure bodily states. The control panel also has switches that produce different actions in individual cells. Your nervous system keeps tabs on everything that happens in your body, actually creating endocannabinoids in response to certain states of the body.

For instance, one cannabinoid might help adjust a cell’s circadian rhythms (sleep cycles), another might ramp up or slow down metabolism, another might enable the creation of antibodies to fight off infections, or produce proteins that reduce inflammation. Some actually tell cells to commit suicide if they are not functioning properly. The list of effects brought about by cannabinoids is extensive and we still don’t quite have a handle on how it all works.

(Cannabinoids also fit into other kinds of receptors in the body besides CB-1 and CB-2, but we’ll save that story for another day.)

Phytocannabinoids, as we said, can mimic the effects of endocannabinoids. They can also produce effects of their own. As we said, they evolved together. Not getting your phytocannabinoids can result in cannabinoid deficiencies which can cause an imbalance in the body. Same goes if your body isn’t producing the proper levels of endocannabinoids. These cannabinoid deficiencies are thought to be responsible for various disease states.

Even with as much detail as we've given here, this explanation is still an oversimplification of the how CBD and the endocannabinoid systems work together, but it should give you a general idea of what a cannabinoid is and how the endocannabinoid system works to bring balance to the body.