Cannabidiol (CBD) has gone from complete obscurity to the buzz of all herbal medicine conversation since the second half of the twentieth century. Prior to the 21st century, there were only 65 studies conducted on CBD. The 21st century has seen a rapid expansion in the amount of research that has been conducted on this remarkable compound. A quick PubMed search today of “Cannabidiol” pulls 2,487 research studies. Research into its many mechanisms of action has led to the discovery of a new neurological communication system, as well as the development of new novel drugs. In order to fully appreciate the magnitude of contribution CBD is providing to the scientific, medical, and patient communities, it is important to get a little history and background to better understand this unique compound.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a major constituent of the plant Cannabis sativa et indica. The Cannabis plant produces over 80 different types of phytocannabinoids (i.e. plant derived cannabinoids), although most are in relatively small concentrations. The two most prevalent compounds are CBD and the well known tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Until recently, most people were only familiar with THC, the phytocannabinoid traditionally with the highest concentration within Cannabis. Cultivators have been tirelessly breeding different strains in attempts to produce the highest concentrations possible of THC, thus resulting in greater psychoactive properties with inhalation or ingestion. As a result, most cultivators have not even acknowledged or experimented with cultivars with higher CBD concentrations. Even if a cultivar was determined to have a higher concentration of CBD, breeders would have completely overlooked it, or even discarded it because it did not have any perceived value for their intended market.
The Search for Charlotte’s Web
We have come a long way since those days not too long ago. The change started with a brave little girl named Charlotte Figi. Charlotte, born on October 18, 2006, started experiencing seizures at 3 months of age and was later diagnosed with a very severe form of epilepsy, called Dravet syndrome. The condition is extremeley rare, but it is associated with a very high frequency of seizures; one every 15 minutes on average for little Charlotte. After recurring emergency room visits, repeated hospitalizations, cognitive and social decline due to the chronic use of highly addictive barbiturates and benzodiazepines, and failing experimental procedures and surgeries, the Figis were desperate to find any kind of relief they could for their daughter. As fate would have it, the family stumbled across a video of young boy living in California, also diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, who had been using Cannabis that was low in THC and high in CBD to successfully treat his seizures.
This was the beginning of the Figi’s search for a Cannabis strain that was high in CBD, but also low in THC. Even though the family lived in Colorado, where medical Cannabis was legalized for several conditions including seizures, they had a very difficult time finding a strain that met their needs. Charlotte’s mother finally stumbled across the Stanley brothers, who had successfully cultivated a strain of Cannabis that met their needs. Fortunately for them, the Stanley brothers had kept their rare and unique strain alive after having a very difficult time finding buyers.
Once a therapeutic dosage was identified, Charlotte experienced a dramatic change in the frequency of her seizures: from 300 per week on average, to just 2-3 per month! She was finally able to develop normally and live an active and full life. Her parents were ecstatic and truly grateful they had found an herbal medicine compound that helped their child no longer suffer. The Stanley brothers named their high CBD Cannabis strain Charlotte’s Web, in honor of little Charlotte Figi.
First Discovery of CBD
The highest concentration of phytocannabinoids are produced within resin glands located in hairs that shoot out from the female flower buds of the Cannabis plant, with smaller concentrations being produced within the leaves. CBD was first extracted and described chemically by Adams et al in 1940, but research on its mechanisms and clinical applications did not begin until the 1970s. The early studies of CBD noted its therapeutic potential as an antiepileptic and sedative. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was revealed that CBD additionally contained properties that reduced anxiety, alleviated psychosis, and helped improve movement disorders associated with dystonia, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s Disease.
Once the millennium arrived, research on CBD exploded. The study listed above documents CBD’s wide-reaching effects, including antioxidant effects, neuroprotective effects, anti-inflammatory properties, prevention of ischemic damage, antidiabetic effects, antiemetic effects, and anticancer properties. It is remarkable when researchers and clinicians can discover an herbal medicine with just one of these beneficial effects. The discovery a single plant-based compound with as many therapeutic properties as CBD is almost unheard of. What is even more exciting is that research is only beginning to take off.
Discovery of Endocannabinoid System
The studies to date have completely changed our understanding of how the central and peripheral nervous systems communicate within the brain, the immune system, the digestive system, and the emotions. Studying CBD’s mechanisms of action has led to the discovery of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The primary receptors associated with the ECS are called CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptor is the one that is associated with producing both the psychoactive properties, the “high” effect of Cannabis sativa et indica strains with higher concentrations of THC, and an increase in appetite. It is important to have higher THC concentrations for conditions such as cachexia, a type of rapid weight loss, and the reduced appetite experienced by individuals battling cancer, however CBD does not readily bind to this receptor.
So what receptors does CBD exert its actions on? What are the mechanisms of action that account for the vast array of therapeutic applications of CBD? Are there different doses of CBD that are required for each unique condition? This is the area where the majority of research is currently focused.
Check out the other articles on this site to learn more about the benefits and therapeutic applications of CBD.