How Exactly Does CBD Work in the Brain and Body?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the most abundant components of the Hemp plant and has been growing in popularity in recent years, as research and legislation have started to focus on the potential therapeutic benefits of the substance.

Though talks about cannabis often relate to the intoxicating effects of its most abundant element – tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC – CBD does not cause intoxication. The substance does, however, impact the central nervous system and the body more broadly, and we’re beginning to understand how CBD affects the brain and body.

Scientists are scratching the surface of potential ways that CBD may be used for health and wellness purposes, and so cannot yet fully explain how the substance may confer the benefits that have been widely reported anecdotally.

However, as more and more evidence for the advantages of using CBD accumulates, the U.S. government has become more open to CBD use, and more committed to understanding how CBD may improve health or quality of life.

CBD is now at the center of hundreds of clinical trials that span a wide variety of disease areas, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even approved the oral CBD drug, Epidiolex, for use in the treatment of certain types of epilepsy. The company that makes this drug also has a CBD drug to treat multiple sclerosis, which has been approved in the United Kingdom.

How CBD Works In the Body

Like other substances, full-spectrum CBD impacts our bodies largely by binding to proteins, or receptors, that are located on the surface of our cells, thereby initiating certain physiological responses. The nervous system contains cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2.

However, unlike THC, which interacts more extensively with cannabinoid receptors, CBD does not appear to bind strongly to these receptors. Instead, it seems to achieve its effects by binding to other types of receptors, such as serotonin receptors, known to influence things like pain, mood, and sleep.

When it comes to the specifics of how CBD achieves its effects, the research surrounding epilepsy probably provides the most information, given that it has been investigated to the point where the FDA agreed to approve a CBD drug for its treatment.

A key finding in the case of epilepsy is the impact of CBD on nerve cells’ sodium channels. The movement of sodium in and out of cells is often abnormal in epilepsy, which can cause the brain cells to fire inappropriately and lead to seizures. Scientists at Indiana University have shown that CBD can inhibit this problematic flow of sodium, reducing and minimizing seizures.

How CBD May Combat Inflammation

In addition to this mechanism that may help CBD improve epilepsy symptoms, CBD has been shown to have numerous other effects that could help with other diseases and disorders, as well as improve overall health. Its effects on inflammation, for instance, have been widely studied.

The body’s immune system is responsible for inflammation. In certain contexts, such as when a harmful foreign substance enters the body, inflammation is beneficial because it effectively suffocates the dangerous entity and eliminates it from our bodies. The immune system therefore initiates inflammatory responses as a way to prevent sickness or injury. However, the immune system is not particularly good at distinguishing harmful stimuli from innocuous ones and often initiates inflammatory responses when there is no benefit to doing so.

Just as inflammation is destructive to foreign substances, it is also destructive to our vital tissues. Our health often depends on fighting our immune system’s tendency toward inflammation, which makes anti-inflammatory agents beneficial to us. Accordingly, experts regularly provide advice on consume to combat our body’s inclination toward inflammation.

CBD appears to be capable of migration of immune cells, which is required for inflammation. When an immune response is initiated, immune cells cluster at a given site, where they cause inflammation. Through its anti-inflammatory properties, CBD has been shown to be helpful in a variety of conditions. For instance, research has shown that CBD can protect against inflammation-induced vascular damage, which may protect the heart. Scientists have also noted that its anti-inflammatory properties may make CBD an effective treatment for skin conditions like acne.

CBD has also been studied for its potential effects on brain diseases. The substance appears capable of inhibiting the production of amyloid-b and tau production, which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, and this capability may be linked to its anti-inflammatory features. Additionally, much of the damage that occurs from a stroke is the result of the inflammatory response to the initial event. CBD may help combat some of that inflammation and lead to better outcomes for stroke victims.

How CBD’s Antioxidant Properties May Protect the Brain

Antioxidants are compounds that fight the damaging oxidative stress that our cells often undergo as a result of a variety of factors including environmental free radicals. Research on CBD has shown that it acts as an antioxidant and that its antioxidant properties seem to provide protection for the brain. Additionally,  scientists have observed that CBD’s antioxidant neuroprotective effects are more powerful than other substances with well-known neuroprotective benefits, such as ascorbate, alpha-tocopherol, vitamin C, and vitamin E.

Key Learnings About CBD in the Brain and Body

Our understanding of if and how CBD can best be used to address a variety of health and wellness issues is in its nascent stages, but research is expanding, and our knowledge is growing. Because CBD lacks intoxication capabilities and because tolerance for it develops at a low rate, CBD is increasingly being viewed as an advantageous substance to use therapeutically.

As more research efforts are focused on how exactly CBD affects our brains and bodies, it will become clearer why people report experiencing positive effects when taking CBD. It should also become easier to determine the best ways to use the substance to achieve desired outcomes and address specific ailments.


Author: Dr. Nisha Cooch PhD, PMP

Dr. Nisha Cooch conducted her doctoral research in Neuroscience at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIA/NIH). She has also served as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the federal government and taught and conducted research at Georgetown University.