A Brief Overview Of The Cannabidiol (CBD) System

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Cannabidiol is the non-psychoactive component of the marijuana plant meaning it doesn’t create the “high” associated with smoking leaf marijuana. The chemistry of the Cannabis sativa plant is quite complex and scientists are working hard to unlock all of its mysterious properties. These discoveries could help those with chronic illnesses enjoy a better quality of life and, perhaps, cure some diseases.


 This article will take you through a brief overview of the cannabidiol system (CBD), how it affects the human brain, and functions of CBD in the Cannabis plant.

Complexities of Cannabis

“The chemistry of Cannabis is quite complex,” this from Oakley Ray, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University. Isolation and extraction of the individual components are exceedingly difficult, even in a world of increasingly sophisticated technologies.

Over 400 chemicals have been identified in the Cannabis plant thus far, with 80 unique substances – the cannabidiols, better known as CBD. According to Dr. Ray, “One of them, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was isolated and synthesized in 1964 and is clearly the most pharmacologically active.” Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the chemical that creates the mind-altering effects of marijuana but also helps patients with nausea and vomiting, such as those with cancer.


In a report published by The Institute of Medicine published in its March 1999, “Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base,” “Cannabinoids are produced in epidermal glands on the leaves (especially the upper ones), stems, and the bracts that support the flowers of the marijuana plant.” However, the flowers contain higher levels of CBD, presumably due to resin collection on the leafy structures beneath the flower. The cannabinoids hold the most promise for helping those with chronic health conditions.

The Cannabinoid System Explained – Effects on The Brain

Certain parts of the brain are more susceptible to CBD due to high concentrations of receptors (neurons) explicitly ‘unlocked’ by cannabinoids. These are the hippocampus, cerebellum, basal ganglia, and the cerebral cortex.

A neuron’s response to a neurotransmitter is dependent on a correct fit by the neurotransmitter on the neuron – comparative to a lock and key system.  If a transmitter (such as CBD) has the right ‘key’ pieces, it will fit into the neuron and convey the message to do something, such as manage pain. However, CBD interacts indirectly with the classic cannabinoid receptors in the brain (CB1, and CB2, see below) which explains why the substance doesn’t create the traditional marijuana high. These receptor sites perform various functions –

CB1 – Locations are primarily in the brain but also located on the spinal cord, spleen, white blood cells, endocrine gland and parts of the reproductive, gastrointestinal and urinary tracts

CB2 – Located in organs of immunity, such as white blood cells, tonsils, and spleen. Significant amounts of CB2 receptors are also found in the stomach and GI tract. The medical community is excited with the promise that CBD products may hold for conditions that affect the gastrointestinal organs, such as the stomach and bowels. Patients with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndromes (IBS) appear to see significant relief from Cannabis-based medicines, such as CBD oils

Introducing cannabinoids to the brain can induce the body to produce more of the body’s naturally occurring cannabinoids (yes, our bodies produce them) through the production of inhibitors that prevent enzymatic breakdown.


Cannabinoids can also interact with certain non-cannabinoid receptor systems in the brain; the same receptors responsible for pain responses (such as opiates). Perhaps the most exciting aspect of CBD’s potential lies in its pharmacokinetics – the substance’s ability to impact a wide variety of receptor systems throughout the body.

Why Does Marijuana Produce Cannabinoids?

One question scientists are asking is why Cannabis produces cannabinoids and how they relate to the plant’s overall success. Theories include protection from UV light, which could damage plant DNA during reproduction. Both THC and CBG-A (the precursor of CBD; cannabigerolic acid) contain insecticidal properties which would protect the plant from damage from insects. Additionally, the sticky resins produced by the plant might form additional barriers against insect predation.

Cannabinoids could also protect the Cannabis plant from surrounding plant growth and it is also responsible for keeping the lower leaves of the plant trimmed back as the plant matures, leaving the understory clear for new seedling growth. These theories are explained in much greater detail in a paper by Dr. Ethan B. Russo, “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects” from the 2011 British Journal of Pharmacology.

Legalization of marijuana in some states has opened the doors for researchers to work on answers for the ramifications of marijuana, and its components, on human health. A deeper understanding of the cannabinoid system is one of the most essential paths for scientists as they seek to unlock all the secrets hiding in the Cannabis sativa plant. 

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