3 min read

The Science Behind CBD

What Is It & How Does It Work?

Unless you’ve—no offence—been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of CBD by now. Since it’s hit the shelves, brands have been putting CBD (or Cannabidiol as its more scientifically known) in pretty much everything, from drinks to makeup. And soon, even tampons—hello!

Everyone is extolling its many beneficial properties, but what exactly is the deal? Here’s a low-down on everything you need to know about CBD.

What is it?

CBD is a phytocannabinoid, AKA a type of molecule synthesised by the Cannabis sativa plant. Our bodies naturally produce very similar molecules, known as endocannabinoids, so the molecule is recognised not as a toxin, but rather as a welcome addition to your body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is responsible for coordinating pain relief and inflammation, among other things.

CBD’s action within the human body isn’t exactly straightforward, but with every new study comes a more specific understanding of how CBD functions, and how it may be used as a pharmaceutical-grade solution for everyday pain, including menstrual cramps. What we do know, however, is that CBD is completely safe, non-addictive and non-intoxicating (in other words, it won’t get you high).

How should I take it?

CBD may be taken through the mouth, applied on the skin, or absorbed through your vaginal lining, but it all depends on the desired bioavailability (ie. the degree to which the substance is absorbed by the body in comparison to the administered dose).

You’ve probably seen CBD drops sold almost everywhere nowadays, but when taken orally, chances are it will end up in the liver, where it will be mostly metabolised. Although digesting CBD will work for eventual pain relief, the process takes several hours (think of how long it takes to digest a meal) and when pain relief is the goal, you’re pretty much looking for immediate action. It’s also likely that a good fraction of the CBD ingested will be converted or passed out in urine, in addition to having a longer onset period. So both in terms of time and dosage, taking CBD orally has a fairly poor bioavailability (less than 10%).

Topical application, on the other hand, provides a more immediate relief but only acts locally, and even though it enters your bloodstream it doesn’t do a great job at relieving inflammation beyond the application site.

If you’re turning to CBD for its potential period pain relieving powers, then one of the best options to fight cramps is absorption through the vaginal mucosa. Not only are your vaginal walls more absorbent than your skin, but they’re also closer to the real source of period pain—the uterine muscles—bypassing your digestive system. As an added bonus, the lining of your vaginal canal also contains the highest concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the human body, along with a huge blood supply that provides easy access to the systemic circulation.

How exactly does it work?

While there is still a lot of research to be done on CBD’s direct mechanism of pain relief, several independent studies have revealed how CBD works it’s healing powers. CBD communicates with the endocannabinoid receptors in your central nervous system, triggering the pathways responsible for reducing pain and inflammation, while also communicating with the pathways linked to hyperalgesia (an increased sensitivity to pain).

There are many pathways to pain, and CBD has a complicated pharmacology where it can act on many of these pathways. It can also act, among other things, as an antioxidant by reducing oxidative stress i.e. the imbalance of free radicals.

So, why all the confusion?

CBD has been shown to have anti-anxiety, muscle relaxant, neuroprotective, and antipsychotic effects. While it’s true that CBD is a relatively new field of research, PubChem lists over 600 legitimate papers with mentions of CBD in relation to disease control or management. Of note, there are 134 co-listed with pain, 61 with nausea, 57 with vomiting, and 42 with chronic pain. While this doesn’t indicate treatment success, even if all the 294 papers report negative, null, or inconclusive findings with respect to the use of CBD, the number of studies does demonstrate a growing body of scientific inquiry.

The unspoken rule of scientific inquiry is: the more you fail, the more you learn, so at the very least the wealth of CBD literature is not the wild west sceptics claim it to be. It’s at a stage in research and development where we don’t know what we don’t know, but the pace at which biochemical understanding is increasing is indication enough that researchers may soon discover more mechanisms for how, and why, CBD is a novel utility for our health.

All of this experimental evidence shows that CBD is not the New Age fad that skeptics claim it to be, but neither is it the mystical cure-all that some wellness fanatics swear by. Even if we still don’t know the exact mechanism by which it works, we know CBD does a lot of good, and it does it well.

Illustrations by Erin Rommel. Erin is the founder of @second.marriage, a Brooklyn-based brand, illustration, and design studio.

Written by Lizzy Trelstad. Lizzy is a NYC-based chemist specialised personal care and cosmetics, and is the founder of Beaker.

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