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How CBD Stimulates Your Endocannabinoid System

Woman lying in a field at night

If CBD’s trendiness somehow makes you doubt its potential, consider the fact that there is an entire system in the body named after it. And understanding this system, known as the endocannabinoid system, is key to understanding how CBD oil works—and what exactly it can do. 

What is the endocannabinoid system?

The endocannabinoid system is a major part of our bodies, and its main job is to create balance, or homeostasis. But it wasn’t discovered by scientists until the early ‘90s. “Considering how important this system is, it’s like discovering a neurological system, lymphatic system, or circulatory system really late in biomedical science,” explains Chad Conner, a Santa Barbara, California-based herbalist, acupuncturist, and CEO of Pure Ratios, a CBD-focused company. “If you have an excess of something, like the stress hormone cortisol, it helps turn it down. Likewise, if you have a deficiency, it helps turn it up,” says Conner. Our immune systems, moods, appetites—pretty much everything is connected to the endocannabinoid system.

There are two types of receptors within the system: CB1 and CB2. “CB1 receptors are found in high concentrations in the central and peripheral nervous systems and brain, whereas CB2 receptors tend to be found in the body and organ systems, particularly the immune system and glands,” Conner says. CB1 and CB2 receptors also exist in the skin, and researchers think they’re responsible for maintaining balance there as well. There’s growing evidence suggesting that an out-of-whack endocannabinoid system may contribute to a variety of skin concerns, such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and acne.

The difference between endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids

The endocannabinoid system is influenced and supported by fat-based molecules called cannabinoids, of which there are two types. Endocannabinoids are naturally found in our bodies—the two best-known are anandamide, taken from the Sanskrit word for bliss, and 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG. Phytocannabinoids, on the other hand, come from a number of plants, such as echinacea, cocoa, and kava kava—but cannabis contains the most potent phytocannabinoids of all. Though there are over 100 phytocannabinoids in cannabis, the most studied are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the stuff that gets you high, and the buzzy-but-non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD). 

How CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system 

THC directly binds to CB1 receptors (hence why it affects your brain), Conner says, but CBD works a little differently. “It doesn’t directly bind, but rather spikes your body’s own natural endocannabinoids, like anandamide, which then bind to the receptors.” If you ingest it, it goes right into your bloodstream and provides a full-body effect, helping with everything from anxiety to epilepsy. When you apply it topically, the result is more targeted—on-the-spot pain relief, soothing, and overall improvement in the skin issues mentioned above. No matter how you take it, though, one thing is for sure: there are many, many more benefits to come, as scientists are just beginning to unravel CBD’s potential.