Updated: Sep 18, 2019
So, how can CBD be useful for so many different people and different issues? It’s because it acts as an adaptogen – my favorite class of botanical medicines – which balance or modulate our health. Adaptogens help the body adapt to mental as well as physical stress, but how exactly do adaptogens work? Adaptogens bind to receptors weakly and either stimulate an empty receptor or block an over-active one. In this way, they balance physiology.
In the case of CBD, the receptors of interest are the CB1and CB2 receptors (and a few other known ones). Collectively this receptor system is referred to the endocannabinoid system. More familiar receptor systems include the neurotransmitter system which releases serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. The opioid system which releases endorphins (and others) is another familiar receptor system.
When CBD binds to CB1 receptors, which are located primarily in the central nervous system, the effect occurs primarily in the brain; calming pain, anxiety, tremor and other Central Nervous System (CNS) effects. When CBD binds to the CB2 receptors, which are primarily in the immune system, effects related to inflammation and allergy are activated. (Ref 1). This is why CBD has such a wide range of applications.
The following simplistic case study illustrates the neurochemistry: consider 2 typical people – one prone to anxiety in times of stress. The other is prone to depression when things get rough. Both take CBD which binds to their CB1 receptors. The anxious person may be overproducing other excitatory ligands that bind to the receptors, literally overstimulating them. CBD, which has a weaker effect, binds and displaces the others, quieting the system down. The depressed person may have a deficiency of excitatory ligands and thus a lot of empty unstimulated receptors. CBD fills those vacancies, creating a stimulating effect. This is what we call an adaptogen, or a partial agonist.
If you are interested in learning more about the concept of adaptogens, National Geographic wrote an interesting piece about rhodiola (my favorite adaptogen before I learned about CBD). This Russian sedum was researched by the best biochemists and sports physiologists in an effort to give the USSR Olympic team a leg up in the era before pharmaceutical doping and steroid abuse. Best yet, it was a great example that botanical medicine works!
To summarize our science lesson, CBD activates or blocks effects in the endocannabinoid system effecting change in the nervous system (CB1) and immune system (CB2). The result is a more balanced inflammatory response and a quieter mental space.