How CBD works in the body

+ What we know about CBD’s mechanisms of action

To understand how CBD works in the human body, we need to look at the way it interacts with a complex system found throughout the body and brain - the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is responsible for regulating a wide variety of physiological processes, including mood, pain sensation, memory, inflammation and appetite. Its principle function is to maintain balance at a cellular level and ensure optimal health.

The ECS is made up of two main cannabinoid receptors, named CB1 and CB2, two endogenous cannabinoids (i.e. cannabinoids produced within the body), anandamide (AEA) and 2-AG, and the enzymes involved in endocannabinoid metabolism. Unlike THC, CBD does not appear to directly activate the cannabinoid receptors, CB1 or CB2. However, research suggests that it may interact with the ECS through indirect mechanisms. CBD is thought to elevate the levels of the bodies endogenous cannabinoid, anandamide, by blocking its reuptake and breakdown. Boosting anandamide levels has been linked to improvements in mood and reduced anxiety and may be responsible for improved endocannabinoid system tone.

CBD has also been shown to modulate several other non-endocannabinoid signalling systems. These include

  • Inhibition of adenosine uptake, possibly resulting in indirect agonist activity at adenosine receptors, which may account for the purported anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety effects 
  • Enhanced activity at the 5-HT1a receptor - which may account for the calming effects often described
  • Enhanced activity at glycine receptor subtypes - which may underlie anecdotal reports about CBD’s effects for pain management
  • Blockade of the orphan G-protein-coupled receptor GPR55 - a protein whose overactive signaling has been implicated in numerous diseases

For further reading please refer to the most recent report by the World Health Organisation.