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CBD Has Unique Ability to Cross Blood-Brain Barrier

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

cbd ability to cross blood brain barrier

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your body has a barrier to keep foreign chemicals from accessing your brain and spinal cord. Researchers have discovered by coating nanocapsules with CBD oil, they could carry particles into the brain of mice
  • CBD is the nonpsychoactive component of cannabis, which has strong anti-anxiety effects. Its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier suggests your brain has cannabinoid receptors used to maintain health
  • Although it’s normal to be concerned, too much stress and anxiety steals your time, energy and health; according to the World Health Organization, by 2030 global costs of anxiety treatment are expected to reach $147 billion annually
  • Low levels of endocannabinoids impact your risk of migraines, fibroids, irritable bowel syndrome and neurological conditions, but using CBD alone is not the answer to support your endocannabinoid system (ECS)
  • Natural ways to boost your ECS include avoiding pesticides, optimizing omega-3 intake, fasting, exercise and reducing stress

The cannabis plant has over 400 chemicals and at least 60 different cannabinoids1 — chemical compounds the human body is uniquely equipped to respond to. Of the two primary chemicals, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), only THC has psychoactive properties.

THC is the compound in cannabis triggering a "high," whereas CBD has no psychoactive effects. Both compounds, and other phytochemicals found in medical marijuana plants, have a long list of beneficial effects on health.

Medical marijuana is a term used for the use of the whole, unprocessed plant or its chemicals to treat a medical condition.2,3 With the exception of four cannabis-containing or cannabis-related products for specific conditions with a prescription, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any "marketing application for cannabis for the treatment of any disease or condition."4 On the other hand, some states have gone ahead and approved it themselves for certain medical conditions.5

The number of states that have decriminalized, legalized or allowed medical marijuana sales continues to grow. In some states, cannabis is fully legal or illegal, but in others the laws are mixed, allowing medicinal use but not recreational.6

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse,7 notable scientific study results led to the creation of two FDA-approved medications containing cannabinoid chemicals in pill form, but not the use of the whole plant. Recently scientists proved CBD can carry other chemicals across the blood brain barrier, opening up its medicinal potential even further.

The Blood-Brain Barrier Is Designed to Protect Your Brain

More than 100 years ago, scientists discovered not everything injected into the bloodstream would reach the brain or spinal cord.8 Through research, scientists discovered the blood-brain barrier is semi permeable; in other words, it allows some materials to cross into your neurological system, but prevents others.

The importance of the blood-brain barrier to the health of your neurological system cannot be overstated. One portion of the system is formed by endothelial cells lining the microvasculature, which feeds your brain. This protects it from circulating agents and substances capable of disturbing your neurological functioning.9

The endothelial tissue in other capillaries in your body have small spaces allowing substances to move between the inside and outside of the vessel. In the brain, these cells fit together so tightly that many substances cannot leave the bloodstream and enter the brain.10

Additionally, glial cells — astrocytes — form another layer around the blood vessels and are involved in a two-way communication affecting physiology and pathology.11 This barrier mechanism is vital for normal functioning and providing a stable internal environment. One compound known to normally pass the blood-brain barrier is CBD.

Pharmaceutical Industry Finds Way to Use CBD as a Trojan Horse

In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was fought between the Greeks and the city of Troy.12 To gain access, the Greeks used a massive wooden horse constructed to hide a select force of men. It was presented as a gift, thereby allowing the Greek warriors to enter and destroy the city. Researchers believe CBD can act as a Trojan horse, helping move restricted chemicals across the blood-brain barrier.13

Researchers were interested in using CBD as a means to an end. They attached CBD, resembling endocannabinoids made by both mice and humans, to the outside of nanocapsules loaded with fluorescent molecules.

The fluorescence enabled the researchers to track the particles with the hope the experiment would mimic what occurs in the blood-brain barrier of humans. They demonstrated the CBD nanocarriers could transport fluorescent molecules across the blood-brain barrier in mice.14

When added in vitro to human cells mimicking the blood-brain barrier, the nanocarriers with CBD were more successful in passing through the cells than those without the CBD. Researchers also found when CBD nanocapsules were injected into healthy mice, 2.5 times more of them entered the animals' brains than nanocarriers of equal size lacking the CBD coating.

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Cannabidiol — Nonpsychoactive Component Has Anti-Anxiety Effects

The ability of CBD to naturally move across the blood-brain barrier indicates there are endocannabinoid receptors in the brain, which your neurological system uses to maintain optimal health. One of the benefits of CBD on your neurological system is reducing anxiety.

A meta-analysis15 evaluated the potential for CBD as a treatment for anxiety-related disorders. They found preclinical evidence strongly supported it for the treatment for panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A second large retrospective study16 looked at cases in psychiatric clinics involving the application of CBD for anxiety and sleep complaints. It too found the data supported the use of CBD for anxiety-related disorders.

In a small study17 involving 24 patients with generalized social anxiety disorder who, while diagnosed, had never been treated, half received CBD while the other half received a placebo. Another 12 healthy control subjects performed the test without receiving either medication or a placebo.

Each volunteer participated in a double-blind procedure. The researchers compared the effects of a simulation of public speaking on the 36 individuals, finding CBD pretreatment significantly affected cognitive impairment, anxiety and discomfort in speech performance.

The participants in the placebo group experienced higher anxiety, cognitive impairment and alert levels than the control group. No significant differences were observed between those taking CBD and the healthy control subjects who took nothing.18

These results piqued the interest of Dr. Esther Blessing, psychiatrist and researcher at New York University. She obtained funding from the National Institutes of Health, and along with collaborators are beginning a clinical trial to test if CBD helps those with PTSD and moderate or severe alcohol use disorder.19

The researchers plan to use pharmaceutical grade CBD or a placebo daily on 50 participants with the goal of evaluating alcohol intake in those who take CBD.

A second study20 now in Phase II is exploring whether CBD may help prevent relapse in opioid addicts. As explained by Blessing, CBD is different from cannabis. Although it's extracted from cannabis, it does not lead to altered perception or cognition.21 She commented:22

"Drugs can be non-psychoactive and still have an effect on the brain. CBD does have an effect on the brain, but it seems to affect the brain in possibly medicinal ways."

Anxiety Steals Time, Energy and Lives

Although it's normal to be concerned about aspects of your life, too much stress and worry may devastate your health. A rise in stress levels and anxiety may trigger physical, mental or emotion changes, an indicator of anxiety disorders.23 Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting an estimated 40 million adults.

Those suffering are three to five times more likely to see their physician and six times more likely to be hospitalized. It's not uncommon for someone with anxiety to also suffer depression.24 Anxiety disorders carry a significant financial burden to individuals, families and communities.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2030, the global annual cost of anxiety will reach $147 billion.25 Researchers in one study concluded:26

"The cost burden of depression, anxiety, and emotional disorders is among the greatest of any disease conditions in the workforce. It is worth considering methods for quantifying direct and indirect costs that use administrative data sources given their utility."

The cost of anxiety is measured in more than finances, as it takes an enormous emotional and physical toll. Long-term negative health effects may include digestive issues, insomnia, substance abuse disorders and depression,27 each of which come with a laundry list of physical symptoms, emotional disruption and financial burden.

Differences Between Recreational and Medicinal Use

The healing properties of medical cannabis come primarily from high levels of CBD and critical levels of other medicinal terpenes and flavonoids. However, THC, responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis, also has medicinal benefits.28,29 Growers are able to use selective breeding techniques to increase CBD and lower levels of THC for medicinal use.

While CBD has gained the most attention, CBD alone cannot fully support your body's endocannabinoid system (ECS). Cannabinoid receptors in the human body were discovered in the 1990s,30 which in turn led to the realization our body makes endogenous cannabinoids that influence these receptors.

It was also discovered the ECS orchestrates communication between other bodily systems, such as your respiratory, digestive, immune and cardiovascular systems. The ECS does this via receptors found in every organ, including your skin. The use of medicinal CBD is aimed at the health benefits derived from providing your ECS with sufficient support.

However, if you choose to use exogenous CBD, it's important to choose the right product as some do not meet the claims made on the label.31 Since CBD oil became a focus of popular holistic medicine almost overnight, the rapid innovations in the market have been impressive. However, while products quickly enter the market, effective control has not caught up yet.

Despite CBD being sold as a food supplement, it is often used for significant health problems. The WHO analyzed available scientific data and concluded CBD does not require drug scheduling. Nevertheless, CBD manufacturing may benefit from a preparation analysis to reduce contaminants and ensure the product in the bottle is what's on the label.32

Researchers believe the methodology to achieve this goal already exists and the approach would hold the producer accountable for quality and safety. Until a system is in place, if you live in a state that has legalized CBD, it is important you purchase any products from a trusted source.

Single Magic Bullet Is Not the Answer to Support Your Endocannabinoid System

In this video clip from an interview with Carl Germano, board-certified nutritionist and phytocannabiniods expert, he discusses the need to move away from the single magic bullet idea of separating one nutritional compound from a plant and expecting miraculous results.

It's important in many cases to consume the whole plant. The cannabis plant contains at least 60 other cannabinoids and 400 other chemicals, and many of these other phytocannabinoids and terpenes are needed to fully support your ECS.

However, the vilification of cannabis continues to negatively impact the ability to use the compounds medicinally.33 CBD oil has demonstrated use in the treatment of pain,34 which represents a significant threat to the sale of opioids responsible for a large piece of the financial growth of Big Pharma in the past decade.35

Purdue Pharma went even further, trying to position the company as an "end-to-end provider" of opioids and the treatment for addiction.36 The cannabis plant also poses economic threats37 to the lumber, energy, food and other industries as the fiber may be used to make paper, biofuel, building materials, food products and oil, clothing, shoes and even jewelry.

Cannabinoids Necessary for Optimal Health

Low levels of endocannabinoids in your system result in ill health. As you age, your body becomes less efficient in creating endocannabinoids needed for optimal health. According to Germano, cannabinoids may be used as biological markers for specific conditions and illnesses.

Endocannabinoid deficiency has been identified in those with migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and neurological conditions, for example. Research has also discovered an intimate relationship between ECS and your omega-3 status, as omega-3 fat improves your cannabinoid receptors.

Other conditions associated with low levels include stress, anxiety, insomnia and eye health. For a long list of health benefits you'll receive from supporting your ECS system, see my previous article, "The Many Medicinal Benefits of Cannabis and Cannabidiol (CBD)."

How to Boost Your Natural Endocannabinoid Levels

In my previous article, "The Endocannabinoid System and the Important Role It Plays in Human Health," I discussed the importance of activating your ECS. There are several natural ways you may activate the system to improve your health without using external cannabinoids:

Avoid pesticides and phthalates — Start by avoiding chemicals blocking the receptivity of your endogenous system by reducing your exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides and phthalates. Find more information about phthalates in my previous article, "Phthalate Exposure Threatens Human Survival."

Optimize your omega-3 intake — There's an intimate relationship between your ECS and your omega-3 status. Omega-3 fats make your cannabinoid receptors more active, and are used as backbone structures to produce cannabinoids in your body.

Expose yourself to cold temperatures — In past articles I've written about some of the surprising benefits of extreme temperatures. One of those benefits is the regulation of endocannabinoid in white and brown adipose tissue.

Fasting — Intermittent fasting may improve your health using yet another mechanism in your body — by increasing your endocannabinoid levels, and regulating your ECS.

Caffeine — Regular caffeine consumption regulates and enhances the activation of cannabinoid receptors. Remember the added caffeine may also disrupt quality sleep, so it's important to forgo any caffeinated substances after 2 p.m.

Reduce stress — High levels of emotional stress have been shown to downregulate endocannabinoid levels in your body. High levels of cortisol also reduce binding to your endocannabinoid receptors. I recommend my previous article, "How Stress Affects Your Body, and Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Develop Greater Resilience," to help you find methods that work for you.

Exercise — Although exercise is an excellent stress reducer, research also finds the much talked about "runner's high" may be a function of the release of endocannabinoids in your brain and not just endorphins. If you are new to exercise, you'll find suggestions and links in my previous article, "Exercise to Improve Your Body and Your Brain."

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