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How Does CBD Work?

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Millions of people believe that CBD has the power to quell anxiety and eliminate pain. How does CBD interact with the human body to exert these reported effects?

What is CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid, which means that it is unique to Cannabis sativa. Unlike its famous cannabinoid cousin, ∆9 tetrahydrocannabinol (∆9 THC), CBD does not exert intoxicating effects. Instead, the effects of CBD are mild, calming, and somewhat soporific.

While Cannabis sativa has been selectively bred to be high in THC for centuries, modern breeders have reversed this trend by producing cannabis phenotypes that contain high concentrations of CBD and low concentrations of THC. Classified as ‘industrial hemp’ by US law, CBD products containing less than 0.3% THC are widely sold online and in various retail establishments.

How does CBD work in the body?

Cannabis researchers have determined more than 30 biochemical points at which CBD interacts with the human body. While the majority of these interaction points have not been studied in great detail, the high affinity that CBD displays for the nervous system’s 5-HT1A and TRPV1 receptors have inspired a considerable amount of research into these two interactions.

CBD and 5-HT1A

5-HT1A is the body’s most prodigious serotonin receptor. CBD acts as an agonist at the 5-HT1A receptor, and as a result, it increases the concentration of serotonin available within the body.

As one of the most abundant and important neurotransmitters, serotonin is responsible for a wide variety of tasks ranging from metabolism to mood modulation. The application for which serotonin has been most widely researched is the treatment of affective disorders such as anxiety and depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), for instance, are popular antidepressant psychotropics that prevent serotonin that has been secreted from reabsorbing into neuronal tissue.

In addition to managing mood, serotonin is also the primary modulator of neuropathic pain. It’s CBD’s interaction with the 5-HT1A receptors that provide researchers with the greatest hope that this cannabinoid might be useful for pain, depression, and anxiety.


CBD, and especially this cannabinoid’s carboxylic acid form, CBDA, show a considerable affinity for the TRPV1 receptors, which are involved in inflammation and pain. The TRPV1 receptor is also a current target of epilepsy therapies, and CBD researchers suspect that agonistic behaviour at this receptor may be responsible for the antiepileptic properties of CBD-based prescription drugs like Epidiolex.

Other CBD mechanisms of action

CBD’s agonistic activity at the 5-HT1A and TRPV1 receptors explain the observed ability of this cannabinoid to mitigate pain, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and a wide variety of other conditions. CBD has also been observed to interact with a wide variety of other bodily systems. This cannabinoid, for instance, acts as an agonist at the GPR55 receptor, which is involved in carcinogenesis and tumour development.

Where CBD does not have any remarkable affinity, however, is at the CB1 and CB2 receptors, which are the primary sites of activity for THC. In fact, CBD subtly changes the shape of the CB1 receptor to make it less likely to bond with THC, somewhat reducing the psychoactive properties of this intoxicating cannabinoid.

Effects of various CBD ingestion methods

CBD exerts moderately different effects depending on the method used to ingest this cannabinoid. Orally ingested CBD, for instance, must pass through the liver before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream, reducing the potency of this cannabinoid. When inhaled, however, CBD directly absorbs into the lining of the lungs, bypassing the liver and rapidly entering the central nervous system.

Individuals who want to experience the full potency of CBD would be encouraged to inhale this cannabinoid in CBD flower or CBD vape cartridge form. Ingesting CBD orally provides significantly decreased bioavailability even if the effects of this ingestion method last longer.

Strain-specific CBD effects

Via a phenomenon that cannabis researchers have dubbed the ‘entourage effect’, CBD exerts moderately different effects depending on the minor cannabinoids and terpenes it is paired with. As a result, each strain of CBD-rich hemp flower produces subtly different results when ingested. Due to the unique properties exerted by different terpenes, for instance, the effects of Sour Space Candy CBD flower will be noticeably different from the effects of Frosted Kush.

CBD users who want to dial in on the specific effects they desire from this cannabinoid are encouraged to try a variety of different strains. The best way to experience the unique effects of a particular CBD-rich Cannabis sativa strain is to consume it in CBD flower or CBD vape cartridge form.

Helen Bradfield did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.

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