How Does CBD Affect The Brain?

Some of you may be thinking, since CBD comes from cannabis, then CBD must be bad for the brain right? Quite the contrary. In fact Cannabis, when it is organically grown outdoors and taken in the right doses can be revolutionary for brain health, and CBD plays a large role in that.

In order to understand how CBD affects the brain, we need to take a look at the endocannabinoid system (ECS) first. The ECS is essentially a biological network that spans the whole mind and body. CBD plugs into this network to exert its many benefits, including those for brain health.

The ECS and The Brain

The ECS can be found within the human brain, as well as many other tissues and organs in the body. As we’ve outlined above, the ECS is a communication system which governs the brain’s physiology which therefore affects psychology (thinking). But it's not just any communication system, it's one that lies at the very core of how the brain works. 

Get this; the CB1 (cannabinoid) receptor is the most densely populated receptor in the brain. That’s right, there are more CB1 receptors in the human brain than for any other brain chemical (1). More than for serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline etc. This speaks volumes as to the importance of the ECS in controlling brain function, and psychology. 

Although there is much more to psychology than the biochemistry that underlies the brain’s function, it still plays a large role, which affects thinking and behaviour as a result. 

Extensive research has been done in animals demonstrating how behaviour can be altered as a result of manipulating the ECS, either with cannabinoids (CBD), synthetic cannabinoids or mice lacking specific ECS genes (known as knock out models). Its been possible to alter behaviour in significant ways in these animals, due to the extensive role that the ECS plays in brain chemical signalling.

The ECS (and CBD) affect the brain in the following ways:

  • Brain Development, Maintenance & Repair
  • Mood, Thought & Consciousness
  • Stress 
  • Reward & Addiction
  • Cognition, Learning and Memory
  • Sleep
  • Appetite & Disordered Eating

Tinkering with the ECS pharmacologically and genetically in animals has shown that it plays a role in both the function and structural architecture of the brain. This is significant because many psychological conditions are underpinned by either functional and/or structural abnormalities in the brain (depression, Alzheimer's for example) .

Certain biological mechanisms are important for maintaining the structural and functional operations of the brain.  When they are disrupted, it creates imbalance and dysfunction.  You see disruptions in the following mechanisms in various neurological and psychiatric conditions: 

  • Synaptic Plasticity 
  • Neuroinflammation
  • Oxidative Stress 
  • Blood Brain Barrier Permeability
  • Neurodegeneration and neurogenesis
  • Lipid peroxidation 
  • Excitotoxicity (Excitatory vs inhibitory)
  • Plaque formation and clearance

What’s also interesting is that early evidence is suggesting that there’s an association between psychiatric and neurological diseases, and the activity of the ECS in humans. 

The ECS has been found to be overactive in cases of:

  • Obesity (2)
  • Alcoholism (2)
  • Schizophrenia (2)

It’s also been found to be under-active in cases of:

  • Depression 
  • PTSD (3)
  • Migraine (3)
  • Alzheimer's (2)

What this evidence highlights is that the ECS must operate within a ‘goldilocks zone’ of physiology that’s just right, in order to maintain psychological equilibrium. 

What’s interesting to consider is what actually goes wrong in neurological and psychiatric conditions. They often share similarities in dysfunction, albeit to different degrees of severity. 

For example, mood imbalances, irritability, deficits in memory and sleep issues can be seen in both depression, Alzhiemers and PTSD. The research with the ECS is suggesting that these may share a common thread in so far as their core pathology is concerned. Particularly considering that the ECS is a core regulator of many of the underlying mechanisms that can go awry in the brain that produce the psychological disturbances that we can observe in the behaviour of people with these conditions. 

What I also found to be interesting is that things that can disrupt the way the ECS works are also well established risk factors for neuropsychiatric and neurological conditions: 

  • Poor diet 
  • Sedentary lifestyle 
  • Emotional trauma 
  • Stress 
  • Infection 
  • Sleep deprivation / circadian disruption 

So, if we consider how significant the interaction between the ECS and healthy psychology is, then supporting or manipulating its function (with CBD) stands to play a powerful role in correcting disturbed psychology. 

Given the fundamental interaction CBD has with the ECS, there is a strong case to be made for CBD to support core components of psychological function in the brain. This is exactly what we will be covering in the section below. 

Ways CBD Supports the Brain

In the section previous to this, we’ve outlined how the ECS plays an integral role in the physiology that keeps us happy, fulfilled, social, relaxed, rested, fed and mentally sharp. 

We also touched on the mechanisms by which the ECS exerts regulatory control over these states. Most important to note is the relationship between a healthy ECS and healthy brain function, and a disrupted ECS and disordered thinking and behaviour. 

What we will now focus on is CBD and brain health, and how it can help specific mental states that are associated with imbalances in ECS activity. This should make it clear as to exactly what cbd does do to your brain. 

CBD can be thought of as a balancer of the ECS, both buffering an over or under-active ECS in an attempt to restore universal balance in the brain. 

  1. CBD can increase ECS activity by inhibiting the enzyme(s) which breakdown endocannabinoids, and temporarily increases their availability in the brain (4). This alters neurological function. 
  2. At the same time, when endocannabinoids are overproduced they can overstimulate cannabinoid receptors in the brain, CBD steps in to block the effects of too many endocannabinoids (5)

This see-saw mechanism is how CBD acts as an adaptogen, to balance each and every individual's ECS in the way they most need, whether it’s under or overactive. 

CBD and Brain Health

There’s plenty more to CBD than just its effect on the ECS, but given the role the ECS plays in maintaining brain health, this is the main route by which it exerts its effects. 

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A few of the key mechanisms CBD influences psychology through:

  • Central Nervous System Depressant (Sleep & Relaxation)
  • Antioxidant (Neuroprotection)
  • Anti-inflammatory (Neuroprotection)
  • Anti-depressant
  • Anti-anxiety
  • Neurogenesis (can help new neurones and brain structures grow and re-develop)
  • Nootropic 
  • Cerebral circulation (Brain Blood Flow)

We will go into more detail about how CBD affects brain health in other articles, particularly with reference to specific conditions where brain health is concerned. This was just a broad overview of the relationship between CBD, the ECS and brain health.

So hopefully you know now that CBD is not bad for the brain, but in fact an essential compound to help support the brain when it is subject to chemical and structural imbalance.

If you have any questions about CBD and brain health, leave a comment or drop me a message and I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.