If you’re reading this, you’ve clearly heard about the health benefits of CBD for pets.
But chances are you’re not 100% clear on how CBD actually works in your pet’s body.
In this article, I’ll take an overview of your pet’s endocannabinoid system, review how it works, and explain how CBD delivers its many different health benefits to dogs and other animals.
Table of Contents
The Basics of The Endocannabinoid System
Your pet has an endocannabinoid system just like you do.
In its most basic sense, the endocannabinoid system has 3 main components:
- Endocannabinoids: These are tiny chemical messengers that help trigger a wide variety of responses in the body. The 2 predominant endocannabinoids in mammals are anandamide (arachidonoyl ethanolamide) and 2-AG (or 2-Arachidonoylglycerol). In some ways, these chemicals work like neurotransmitters in that they can alter how neurons and other cells communicate with each other.
- Endocannabinoid Receptors: These are receptor cells that can receive endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG. To visualize how cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids interact, imagine the receptors as little locks and the endocannabinoids as keys. When the keys unlock the locks, they can trigger a wide variety of different physiological responses to occur. There are 2 main types of cannabinoid receptors which are CB1 (found in very high concentrations in many parts of the brain) and CB2 (found in much lower concentrations, mainly on some immune cells and some neurons).
- Enzymes: These enzymes help to both synthesize and degrade cannabinoids. Some of the enzymes involved in this process include fatty acid amide hydrolase or monoacylglycerol lipase.
How Was The Endocannabinoid System Discovered?
The endocannabinoid system was actually discovered because researchers wanted to better understand the psychoactive effects of cannabis.
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discovered the system in the 1960s with a team of researchers from Israel.
Mechoulam, who today is one of the most revered cannabis researchers in the world, decided to investigate the chemistry of cannabis sativa for a very simple reason:
Humans had been using this the plant for thousands of years as a medicine and recreational agent, yet we still didn’t actually know what gave it its unique recreational and medicinal effects.
As a result of Dr. Mechoulam’s research, we learned that cannabis contained compounds known as cannabinoids.
This includes THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, CBD, and roughly 100 other compounds (such as CBN, CBG, CBC, etc).
We also learned that some these compounds, mainly THC, interact directly with specific receptor cells (ie CB1 and CB2) in the body.
In other words, the discovery of the active compounds in the cannabis plant actually led researchers like Dr. Mechoulam to discover an entirely new physiological system, which today we know is of great importance in the overall function of our bodies.
Where are Cannabinoid Receptors Found?
Cannabinoid receptors are present all throughout the brain and body.
In the brain, for example, CB1 receptors are found in high numbers in the hypothalamus, hippocampus, basal ganglia, amygdala, cerebellum, cerebral cortex, and the brain stem.
In these regions, CB1 receptors tend to sit on the axons of different neurons.
CB1 receptors are also found throughout the body, though in lower quantities.
They can be found, for example, in the skin, some peripheral organ tissue, in endocrine glands (like the pineal gland, pancreas, and thyroid), throughout the GI and urinary tracts, and in some immune cells.
CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are mainly found in white blood cells, the spleen, and in the tonsils.
Why Do Mammals Have Endocannabinoid Systems?
I hear this question a lot:
Why do we have a system of receptors and enzymes in our body that seem almost tailor-made to the compounds in cannabis?
Well, the endocannabinoid system is a regulatory system that helps mediate many key processes that keep the body functioning properly.
It does this by producing cannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG in an on-demand fashion.
Unlike other compounds in the body, endocannabinoids aren’t synthesized and stored. Instead, their precursors exist in cell membranes and are then synthesized together by special enzymes when they are needed.
This can happen in response to appetite changes, exercise, stress, pain, and even changes in the time of day.
Research shows, for example, that endocannabinoid activity increases in response to rising cortisol levels from some kind of stressful stimuli.
When we’re exposed to the same stress multiple times, our bodies actually produce more endocannabinoids every time.
This helps drive down cortisol levels, ultimately making a stressful event less stressful when repeated multiple times.
We also see a spike in endocannabinoid levels after we exercise.
In fact, this rise in endocannabinoids is what causes that iconic “runner’s high” we feel after a workout.
Research also shows that the endocannabinoid system is involved in managing other bodily processes, such as:
- Body temperature
- Sex drive
- Immune function
Because it is involved in so many different physiological processes, the endocannabinoid system is actually believed to promote homeostasis (a state of equilibrium that optimizes the body’s function).
When the endocannabinoid system is thrown out of balance, our bodies become vulnerable to disease and infection.
In fact, some researchers suggest that disruptions to the endocannabinoid system could be at the heart of all disease.
Following the discovery of the cannabinoids in cannabis and the subsequent discovery of the endocannabinoid system, a lot of research has been dedicated to this field of study.
However, we still have a long way to go in properly understanding all the mechanisms behind this complex system.
How Does CBD Interact With The Endocannabinoid System?
It is really important to realize that the endocannabinoid system’s job isn’t just to mediate the effects of phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD.
The system is present and active in all mammals, regardless of whether they have ever consumed cannabis or not.
However, consuming phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD can change endocannabinoid activity.
THC does this by directly binding to CB1 receptors.
CBD, however, is a little different, as it doesn’t have a high binding affinity for either cannabinoid receptors.
Instead, it works by activating over 60 different molecular pathways, some of which stimulate the endocannabinoid system indirectly.
When it enters the body, CBD is transported by FABPs, or fatty acid binding proteins.
These proteins help transport lipid molecules like CBD, anandamide, and 2-AG through cell membranes.
Once inside a cell, CBD modulates receptors on the nucleus of specific cells.
What Receptors Does CBD Interact With?
Below I’ll highlight some of the different receptors CBD can interact with once inside a cell.
CBD Activates Serotonin Receptors
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in regulating mood, our circadian rhythm, appetite, as well as cognitive and motor function.
It is also believed to have anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects.
In fact, many antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
CBD, in higher doses, can directly activate a specific serotonin receptor known as 5-HT1A.
These receptors are found all throughout the peripheral and central nervous systems.
When CBD binds to these receptors, it is believed to affect:
- Anxiety and stress
- Pain sensation
CBD Binds to Vanilloid Receptors
Studies also show that CBD binds to TRPV1 receptors, also known as vanilloid and capsaicin receptor.
These receptors are mainly found on nociceptive neurons throughout the peripheral and central nervous systems, where they play an important role in the transmission and modulation of pain signals.
CBD is believed to get its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects from its ability to bind to these vanilloid receptors.
Eugenol (a compound found in Vanilla), capsaicin (a compound in peppers), and anandamide also have the ability to bind to these receptors and thereby deliver analgesic effects.
CBD Activates PPAR Receptors
Besides serotonin and vanilloid receptors, CBD can also activate a group of receptors known as peroxisome proliferator-activated gamma receptors.
Studies have shown that activating these receptors can have anti-proliferative effects on some cancer cells.
Activating these receptors has also been shown to degrade the amyloid plaques that characterize Alzheimer’s disease.
CBD may help regulate some of these conditions by binding directly to PPAR receptors.
CBD Blocks GPR55 Receptors
While CBD can activate some receptors, it can also deactivate others.
GPR55 receptors are found in high abundance around the brain in areas like the cerebellum, where it helps regulate blood pressure, bone density, as well as the growth and death of some cells.
For example, over-productive GPR55 receptors have been linked to osteoporosis and the proliferation of cancer cells.
Scientists have shown that CBD can help deactivate GPR55 receptors and therefore regulate their effects.
CBD Can Work as a Reuptake Inhibitor
Reuptake is a mechanism which regulates excess neurotransmitter levels.
When neurons release serotonin, for example, transporter proteins carry the excess serotonin molecules from the synaptic cleft (the tiny gap between two neurons) back to the neuron that released them.
A similar process happens when your body produces anandamide.
However, CBD can inhibit the reuptake process, thereby temporarily raising endocannabinoid levels in the brain.
CBD also competes for the fatty acid binding proteins that transport anandamide and 2-AG into cell membranes, as well as the enzymes that break down these endocannabinoids.
The resulting elevation of endocannabinoid levels may also have mood-boosting effects, as well as help with inflammation, seizures, pain, and more.
CBD Can Change the Shape of Some Receptors
Besides activating and deactivating some receptors, CBD can also modulate the shape and activity of others.
Australian researchers showed that CBD can modulate the shape of GABA receptors.
GABA is a main inhibitory neurotransmitter.
When it interacts with a neuron, it makes it less likely to fire off another neurotransmitter.
CBD has been shown to modulate GABA receptors so that they have a higher binding affinity for GABA molecules.
Some sedative drugs like Valium, for example, work by increasing GABA activity in the brain.
This is why CBD has anxiolytic and, in some cases, sedative-like effects.
CBD can do something similar with CB1 receptors, making them less likely to bind to THC.
This is essentially why CBD can reduce some of the negative side effects of THC, such as anxiety.
What Effects Can CBD Have?
As we saw above, CBD is a really complex molecule that can affect the body in a wide variety of ways.
Unfortunately, we still don’t exactly understand CBD, the endocannabinoid system, and the cannabis plant.
Nonetheless, research is showing us that CBD can have anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, analgesic, and antiemetic effects.
Research also suggests it may help treat some of the following conditions:
- Autoimmune conditions
- Cardiovascular problems
- Skin diseases
- Metabolic diseases
- Neurological and psychiatric problems
- Digestive disorders
For a more detailed look at the benefits of CBD for dogs, make sure to check out my CBD benefits page.
Learn More About the Benefits of CBD for Dogs
I first learned about CBD a few years ago after my dog, Rosie, was diagnosed with cancer.
Rosie also had hip dysplasia and, as her cancer progressed, her quality of life really dropped.
Looking for ways to boost Rosie’s health in her remaining time with us, I soon stumbled on CBD.
I was pretty hesitant about trying CBD with Rosie at first, simply because I wasn’t too keen on feeding my dog cannabis.
However, once I learned that CBD is 100% safe and legal, I decided (together with my vet) to give it a try.
And I’m so glad I did.
Within weeks, Rosie’s condition improved immensely.
Seeing how much my dog benefited from CBD, I started this website to help inform other pet owners about this exciting little compound.
To learn more about CBD, how it works, and the health benefits it can have for your pet, make sure to read my blog.
Here's Your Next Step:
I understand that after researching this topic, you might want to consider using CBD with your pet, or you might have more questions.
This is why I have created a simple 7 Step CBD Checklist which helps you figure out if your pet actually needs CBD.
You can download the free checklist here and quickly discover if your pet will benefit from using CBD or not.