What is a Cannabinoid?
Simply put, cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in the cannabis plant. There are dozens of compounds including Cannabidiol (CBD), THC, and a host of other cannabinoids. Together they are responsible for the benefits and drawbacks to medical marijuana and industrial hemp-based products.
Technically, CBD and its sister cannabinoid compounds are classified as phytocannabinoids, which means that they’re derived from plants. But there are also several other types of cannabinoids you should know about too.
For example, the cannabinoids produced within the body’s endocannabinoid system are known as endocannabinoids (such as arachidonoylethanolamine, virodhamine, and many others). There are also cannabinoids manufactured via chemical reactions in laboratories, known as synthetic cannabinoids.
As you’ll see later, each type of cannabinoid interacts with the body in different ways. So now that you understand what a cannabinoid is, how does CBD work with your body?
Our Cannabinoid Receptors and the Endocannabinoid System
Here’s the second half of the equation. You see, your body actually has areas that are made specifically for cannabinoids — they are called cannabinoid receptor sites.
These sites make up the endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for numerous physiological and mental processes that occur naturally within the body.
As we just stated, the endocannabinoid system includes a number of specialized cell receptors in the brain and in various other organs throughout the body.
These receptors fall into two types: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found mainly in the brain (but also in the liver, kidneys, and lungs), while CB2 receptors are found mainly in the immune system.
Here’s the fun part — cannabinoid substances actually bind with these receptors to coordinate various functions across the body.
What Kinds of Effects Can Cannabinoids Have on the Body?
There are several types of cannabinoids. Even within phytocannabinoids, there are wide ranges of compounds and effects that we are still learning about.
Some of these cannabinoids interact strongly with one or both CB receptors, causing various effects, from regulating mood and helping us concentrate, to causing euphoric effects and feeling “high” (like THC). Other cannabinoids, like CBD, have fewer direct effects on the endocannabinoid system (keep this in mind as you read the next section).
To recap: Cannabinoids represent a diverse class of chemical compounds that can be very different from each other. Their only common feature is that they all act on the body’s cannabinoid receptors, either directly or indirectly.
External vs. Internal Cannabinoids
The endocannabinoid system works mainly with our body’s own cannabinoids, which are produced internally. For example, arachidonoylethanolamine (AEA) is produced within the body and is thought to regulate several functions.
However, when cannabinoids are taken externally, it’s difficult to distinguish between the clinically desirable effects and the therapeutically undesirable effects of various phytocannabinoids. This is because cannabinoid receptors send a variety of signals that often interconnect to coordinate the body’s functions, so it’s hard to tell them apart.
For example, CB1 receptors send signals that regulate senses, while cannabinoids that interact with CB2 receptors can at the same time affect gastrointestinal response and peripheral nervous system sensitivity.
See why external cannabinoids (like CBD) can be a little more complicated?
Also, since people often take numerous different cannabinoids together (for example, using medical marijuana), it is hard to attribute specific effects to specific cannabinoids. That’s because unprocessed cannabis includes more than 60 different types of cannabinoids, including CBD and THC.
In addition, some cannabinoids interact synergistically, producing unique effects that are not found when using them individually. For example, CBD inhibits THC’s psychotropic effects when the two are taken together. However, CBD does this (and produces many other effects) without directly interacting with the cannabinoid receptors. At first, scientists thought there was a third type of CB receptor just for Cannabidiol, but the answer was far more interesting and revealing.
We just stated that CBD is fairly unique as far as cannabinoids go, because it does not seem to interact directly with either the CB1 or CB2 receptors. So what does it do if it’s not interacting directly with our receptors?
Here’s where it gets good…
Cannabidiol has a particularly low potential for binding with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, but instead acts as an antagonist of the receptors’ agonists. That’s a mouthful.
In layman’s terms, this means that CBD keeps the receptors working at optimal capacity and helps the function of all other cannabinoids, including the body’s own endocannabinoids.