Cannabidiol (CBD) is a natural chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. While the use of all phytocannabinoids has only been legal in Canada since October 17, 2018, there are decades worth of research about cannabis science.
Since its regulation in Canada, the use of CBD has become more popular and is commonly made available as an oil or in capsule form. Additionally, one can apply CBD as a cream or salve, and even inhale or ingest it in dried flowers or edible products. It is not to be confused with THC — one of the other cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant responsible for getting you high.
CBD is believed by many to be a natural and harmless way for one to relieve and/or manage both physiological and psychological pain as well as alleviate symptoms of diseases such as cancer and Alzhimer’s. Despite any personal beliefs one may have towards CBD and its countless claims, it is important to understand the scientific findings and the current unknowns of CBD.
To begin with, every living organism has the biological need of maintaining “homeostasis,” which refers to any process or reaction that the body utilizes to actively maintain a stable internal environment.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS), which was first discovered in 1964 by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, is a molecular system responsible for regulating and balancing many bodily processes. According to prominent cannabinoid scientist Dr. Vincenzo Di Marzo, the ECS regulates appetite, sleep, memory, and pain-sensation, which are the most important physiological processes for the body to maintain homeostasis.
In the 1990s, Mechoulam’s research eventually led to the confirmation that endocannabinoids are cannabinoids that are naturally produced in the body by the brain.
To date, experts have identified two main endocannabinoid receptors: CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system — especially immune cells.
Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action. Scientists believe that one will feel effects dependent on the receptors that the endocannabinoids bind to and where the given receptor is located.
For example, endocannabinoids that bind to CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve are claimed to relieve pain. However, if one is experiencing inflammation, a common symptom of autoimmune disorders, the endocannabinoids will likely bind to a CB2 receptor in one’s immune system.
Even though experts are not yet sure how CBD interacts with the ECS, many believe it prevents endocannabinoids from being broken down, which would in theory help those who experience a deviation from homeostasis. In fact, some experts believe in a theory known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD), which suggests that low endocannabinoid levels in the body or ECS dysfunction can contribute to the development of conditions such as migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia.
“I take a couple capsules in the morning because I find I have some anxiety when I wake up,” says second-year environmental science student Jaan Bellami. “It gives me a sense of calmness and allows me to carry on with the rest of my day efficiently.”
Some even believe that CBD binds to a receptor that is yet to be discovered. These theories likely account for the claims that users make about CBD products helping them manage physiological and/or psychological pain. Though it is currently unknown if such a theory is true, it may be interesting to note that there is no known underlying cause of the three illnesses mentioned.
Alijandro Rivas, a third-year health studies student, says, “I’d heard about people using CBD for things like anxiety and depression and decided to give it a try for a couple of months.
“The difference is slight,” Rivas continues, “so slight that one may not even notice it unless they are actively looking for it. But it does help me focus on one task wholeheartedly without thinking about what’s next on my agenda, which is an issue I’ve typically had.”
While both scientific and colloquial evidence points towards the use of CBD being a pain reliever, there are also some precautions that one may be advised to consider before deciding to use CBD.
Drug interactions involving cannabinoids will likely vary in their clinical significance depending on the products, potenticies, ratios of CBD, dose, routes of administration, the population studied using the given CBD product, and other factors.
Some evidence points towards “a potential interaction between CBD and phenytoin,” which is a medication used to control certain types of seizures that works by decreasing abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
The future for CBD is heavily dependent on the results of more scientific studies. With this product growing in popularity, scientists and doctors throughout North America and the rest of the world are continuing to work hard to identify both benefits and risks associated with CBD.
For now, it is important to research the current understanding of the product and avoid the naturalistic fallacy, which argues that if something is ‘natural’ it must be good. Like any product used primarily for medicinal purposes, it is always important to speak with your primary physician before using CBD so you can formally evaluate your personal risks when using the substance.