CBD is able to produce medicinal effects because it engages with a unique cell signaling network within the human body. That network is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), and it was named after the cannabis plant. As a cell signaling system, the ECS can be compared to a traffic cop that coordinates movement at a busy intersection. Specifically, the ECS coordinates communication between the central nervous system and the body’s peripheral and visceral organs. The ECS also plays a role in immune function, assisting in response to injury and infection.
The ECS itself contains a number of different parts, including cell receptors, chemical messengers, and the enzymes that create and break down these chemical messengers. Cell receptors, called cannabinoid receptors, sit on the surface of nerve cells, organs, and immune cells. These receptors are activated by chemical messengers called endocannabinoids. The prefix endo meaning inside. In contrast, the cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant are phytocannabinoids, the prefix phyto referring to plants.
Above all else, the ECS is thought to be a stress response network. By stress, we’re talking about more than simply a bad day at work. Rather, in this instance, stress refers to any activity that threatens homeostasis. Homeostasis is the scientific term for optimal balance, or equilibrium, in a system. Exercise, for example, can be considered a stress. After exercise, the body responds by increasing the level of endocannabinoids in circulation. This promotes feelings of bliss, pain relief, and perhaps even inspires hunger
Based on the science so far, however, CBD works by blocking the enzymatic breakdown of endocannabinoid molecules. By preventing them from being broken apart and recycled by the body, more endocannabinoids are available for your body to use. As it turns out, these endocannabinoids play some big roles in human health and behavior. Overall, the ECS is thought to play a part in:
- Bone growth
- Fetal growth
- Pain perception
- Stress response
- Temperature regulation
Increasing the level of endocannabinoids in circulation, however, is not the only way that CBD works. Research suggests that the cannabis compound may improve mood by engaging serotonin receptors, the same receptors targeted by antidepressant drugs. The molecule may also reduce pain by engaging with special heat and pain-sensing receptors called capsaicin receptors. Capsaicin receptors were named after the molecule that causes hot peppers to be spicy.