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Best known as the source of marijuana, cannabis is the wold’s most recognizable, notorious, and controversial plant. Stemming from the resin collected at the tips of the secreting hairs of the female flower, the mind altering effects of cannabis have inspired both religious states of ecstasy and recreational states of awe for hundreds of years. It has been heralded as a gift from the gods, and cursed as a temptation of the devil. But the history of cannabis extends much further than our modern use of marijuana, and this story highlights the tremendous potential of this enigmatic plant.
Dating back to the world’s oldest pharmacopeia, the pen-ts’ao ching (~2,700 BCE), cannabis had been one of the world’s most admired crops. Furnishing an array of products including rope, clothing, paper, food, and medicine, it played an indispensable role throughout early civilization. One of the first plants cultivated by humans some 10,000 years ago, this ancient cannabis had very little psychoactive potency, and little was known about it’s mind altering effects.
It wasn’t until the past thousand years that selective pressure from humans produced strains with elevated concentrations of intoxicating chemicals. Highlighting our existential desire for mind-altering intoxication, this plant was evolved from an industrial resource into the most widely consumed illegal drug in the world. And while the value of psychedelic states of consciousness is open to debate, the demonization of this plant has overshadowed it’s tremendous therapeutic potential. Over 100 distinct cannabinoids (biochemical agents unique to cannabis) have been identified, and shown to have a significant impact on human physiology.
Owing to advances in organic chemistry and cell signaling, a mechanistic understanding of cannabis has developed in which two primary constituents stand apart: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the most widely known cannabinoid, due to it’s psychoactive effect. CBD was first investigated as an antagonist on the undesirable effects of THC (anxiety, paranoia, etc). However, it’s therapeutic uses have been proven to extend far beyond this to positively impacting the body’s parasympathetic nervous system and immune response. Many questions remain at the frontiers of this research, but evidence continues to build supporting the role of CBD in improving three fundamental aspects of modern life: less stress, better sleep, and really great sex.
Some background ..
The cannabis sativa genus is estimated to have emerged approximately 21 million years ago. Compared to the emergence of modern humans (Homo Sapiens) some 200,000 years ago, it is clear that cannabis evolved primarily in the absence of human intervention. Indeed the “original” cannabis sativa plant contained very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC, and was used for industry, food, and medicine. It wasn’t until the last thousand years that the forms of cannabis producing elevated amounts of THC were selected for and developed. Thus began a period of intrigue, cultivation, and eventually outlaw.
The legality of cannabis is wrought with geopolitics, racial discrimination, and Reefer Madness type fearmongering, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century. By the mid-1930s cannabis was regulated as a drug in every state, and went on to be labeled as a ‘Schedule I Narcotic’ under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. Despite its rich history in industry, food, medicine, and religion, and even as it poured into the music and imagination of the 1960’s counter culture, it remained outlawed for all purposes (including medicine).
Fortunately, pioneering researchers had set out to understand how exactly this plant elicits the psychedelic states of consciousness observed by shamans and stoners alike. No amount of gratitude would be sufficient for the risk these researchers took in this field of study. The stigma attached to narcotics was so severely associated with marijuana that scientists risked their careers attempting to initiate studies of virtually any aspect of cannabis, except its harmfulness.
Fortunately this attitude is slowly shifting, and building on their immensely promising research, the field of cannabis study has grown exponentially over the past 20 years with over fifteen hundred papers published last year alone. Perhaps the greatest gift to these pioneers will be the full realization of cannabis’ therapeutic potential.
More than 100 different cannabinoids have been identified in the cannabis sativa strain, leading scientists to search for a mechanism behind it’s powerful effects. The first major step in a comprehensive understanding of the biochemical actions of cannabis came with the isolation, characterization, and synthesis of THC in 1964 by Raphael Mechoulam. This allowed for investigation into the effects of the THC molecule, and the search for suitable receptors that trigger it’s mind-altering response. It wasn’t until 1988 that Allyn Howlett discovered a system of receptors that seemed to be a perfect fit for the THC compound. She named the receptor ‘cannabinoid receptor number 1’ (CB1), and shortly thereafter a second receptor (CB2) was also identified.
CB1 receptors, which are more numerous in the brain, primarily control nerve cell operation in the brain and spinal column. CB2 receptors, found throughout the nervous system, primarily control immune cell operation. Both receptors were found to be agonized (turned on) by the THC molecule in human and animal studies. These receptors became the basis for the development of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), which employs a collection of G protein-coupled receptors known to react with the THC molecule. The studies proving the interaction between THC and the CB1 and CB2 receptors led to an important question: do humans produce their own endogenous cannabinoids, or did these receptors evolve over thousands of years of cannabis intake? The implications of this question are immense, and have led to many hypothesizing that cannabis (and other psychedelics) may have evolved psychoactive properties in order to seduce humanity into the plant’s evolutionary success.
Quick Note : From the perspective of the human body, the cannabinoids of the cannabis plant are “exogenous” (i.e., derived externally), while its own cannabinoids (“endocannabinoids”) are “endogenous” (originating internally).
An answer to this question was again provided by Mechoulam when he identified the first endogenous cannabinoid, Arachidonylethanolamide. Mercifully nicknamed anandamide, this endocannabinoid exists particularly in the human nervous system and acts on the same cannabinoid receptors as THC, CB1 and CB2. (The word anandamide was coined from “ananda,” the Sanskrit word for “bliss” or “supreme joy,” and “amide,” meaning carboxylic acid derivatives.) It is hypothesized that anandamide is synthesized in the muscle tissue of mammals, and may be responsible for the feeling of a “runner’s high” during strenuous activity.
ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM (ECS)
Virtually every organ system of the human body is directly or indirectly influenced by the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), which is critical to understanding the enormous potential medicinal value of cannabis. The ECS regulates numerous life-sustaining functions such as memory, perception, feeding behavior, digestion, blood pressure, body temperature, fertility, bone density, disease resistance, and sexual arousal. The enthusiasm that many medical researchers are currently displaying for the significance of the ECS can scarcely be exaggerated.
To give an overview, the human ECS is made up of cannabinoid receptors (notably CB1 and CB2), endocannabinoids (notably anandamide and 2-arachidonylglycerol [2-AG]), the biosynthetic precursors of the endocannabinoids, and the mechanisms (particularly the enzymes) involved in their biosynthesis and catabolism (inactivation).
“The biochemistry of cannabinoid action in humans is best understood in terms of how they affect cell receptors. Receptors are proteins, located in the cell membrane or inside the cell, which respond to chemicals in their environment by altering metabolic functions within the cell. A particular chemical with drug properties, produced by a plant, may fortuitously mimic a natural chemical that the body employs to regulate cell functions through the receptor system. Plants produce a countless array of chemicals, and it is probably just coincidence that the cannabinoids of cannabis sativa just happen to have architectural (structural) features and ionic properties (distribution of electrical charges) that can activate the cannabinoid receptors of humans (Small 2013).”
As researchers investigated the effects of THC, they found that different strains of cannabis elicited different physiological responses. Where the cannabinoid profile varies between different strains, they eventually identified CBD as the primary antagonist to the unwanted effects of THC, including paranoia, elevated heart rate, and anxiety. Once the CBD molecule was synthesized and developed for testing, it was shown to have a much broader impact on a wide array of bodily functions.
Following suit with previous studies, the interaction between CBD and the endocannabinoid system was investigated. It was determined that CBD had a relatively low affinity for the CB1 and CB2 receptors, the receptors primarily responsible for the mind-altering effects of THC. For this reason, it was determined that CBD lacks the psychotropic effects characteristic of marijuana, and positioned it as the cannabinoid with the highest potential for therapeutic use. Research on the benefits of CBD began pouring in.
CBD has been credited with analgesic, anticonvulsant, antiemetic, antiepileptic, anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxant, anxiolytic, neuroprotective, antioxidant, and antipsychotic activity. It’s clear from these results that CBD has an enormous impact on human physiology, including its neurochemistry. Based on this evidence, it is important to recognize that CBD is psychoactive, but not like THC. As researchers have stated, “although cannabidiol (CBD) is nonintoxicating, it certainly has antianxiety, antipsychotic, and even antidepressant effects, so properly it must be considered psychoactive.” With its low affinity for the cannabinoid receptors, research has focused on identifying alternative pathways for CBD’s impact on neurochemistry, including mood, anxiety, and relaxation. A similarity has been noted between the effects of CBD supplementation and the impact of serotonin on biological systems.
Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT) is an important chemical and neurotransmitter that regulates a wide array of bodily functions through interaction with a system of serotonergic receptors found throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems. Serotonin is released from vesicles in nerve cells and acts as the primary endogenous agonist of 5-HT receptors on the target cell surface. These receptors modulate the release of neurotransmitters and control the release of hormones such as Oxytocin, HGH, and Cortisol (specifically the inhibition of cortisol, which is related to lower stress levels).
This nerve response system incorporates a feedback loop to manage serotonin levels throughout the brain and nervous system. This loop is comprised of a pre-synaptic neuron, post-synaptic neuron, and synaptic cleft. A neurotransmitter (serotonin) is released by the pre-synaptic neuron across the synaptic cleft where it binds with the post-synaptic neuron receptor and triggers a response from the cell. In nerve cells, the post-synaptic neuron then elicits a “feedback” response to the pre-synaptic neuron receptor, signaling that no additional neurotransmitter (serotonin) is needed. This action inhibits the production of additional neurotransmitters in the pre-synaptic neuron.
CBD works as an agonist on the 5-HT1A receptor, the most widespread of the serotonin receptors, influencing the expression of the receptor protein. It is theorized that CBD binds with the 5-HT1A receptors to mimic the effects of serotonin, activating a cellular response. This effectively increases the amount of serotonin available, which generally improves calmness and reduces stress. Typically this would lead to a down-regulation of serotonin production through post-synaptic feedback as described above. However, CBD has been shown to act only on the external serotonin receptor, and not on the internal serotonergic system. This prevents the negative feedback loop that down-regulates the production of serotonin, and instead increases the availability of serotonin throughout the nervous system. This has been hypothesized to be the primary mechanism for CBD’s anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) and antidepressant properties.
The effects of this agonism are not fully understood, but research indicates that itmay activate areas of the body related to the parasympathetic nervous system, possibly through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, aptly named for the latin word meaning ‘wandering’, transmits signals through a wide range of tissues throughout the body including the vagina. It’s role in stimulating blood flow, increasing vaginal lubrication, and magnifying sensation throughout the clitoris and vaginal tissue is well documented. It has also been identified as the signaling pathway to orgasm for women with severed spinal cords, where it has been associated with deep vaginal orgasms. More is required to define CBD’s exact role in our body’s physiological response, but researchers are quickly expanding the breadth and depth of knowledge.
Other potential mechanisms for CBD’s therapeutic effects have been investigated, including the TRPV1 vanilloid or capscacin receptor and the GPR55 receptor. It is likely that CBD interacts with a complex array of receptors to influence our biological systems. Until we learn more about the exact mechanism, we are left to rely on the extremely promising results of human trials.
What is known is that CBD is a powerful anxiolytic, analgesic, and antidepressant. What remains to be discovered are the exact mechanisms for these effects, and the interactions between related biological systems. Though many questions remain, there is tremendous anecdotal evidence that CBD improves well being by reducing stress, elevating feelings of security, bolstering communication, and leading to states of relaxed awareness required for focused and intimate activity.
Stress, Sleep, and Sex..
Whether you’re a rambunctious youth or an overworked adult, we are all faced with the increasingly complex balance of family, school, work, travel, exercise, and fun. While all of these activities provide deep levels of fulfillment, they can place tremendous pressure on our body’s restorative functions. The management of these functions is controlled primarily by our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is comprised of two parts: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). The PSNS is a complex network of cranial nerves that is responsible for inducing relaxation, digestion, salivation, and sexual arousal. The SNS is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response, and increases alertness, heart rate, and muscle tension. When the SNS is activated, it shuts down the PSNS in order to address urgent and immediate needs through our stress response.
When confronted with physical danger or emotional confrontation, stress is the body’s response to a perceived threat. In the presence of stress, our body undergoes a ‘stress-shift’ in hormone production. Production of cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are prioritized during this shift, activating the sympathetic nervous system. The subsequent increase in our body’s ability to act allows us to address immediate and urgent needs. It’s a remarkable evolutionary development, but it comes at a cost. As the body shifts to producing elevated concentrations of stress hormones, it does so at the expense of hormones related to our other biological functions. Specifically, it inhibits the production of neurotransmitters and hormones related to relaxation, comfort, and sexual arousal.
The overstimulation of the stress shift response, through chronic stress and anxiety, is enormously detrimental to our quality of life. Inhibiting the production of neurotransmitters and hormones required by the PSNS, chronic stress and anxiety greatly affect our quality of sleep, restoration, and sexual functions. This impact is well documented, and likely something we’ve all experienced. It highlights the importance of developing tools and practices for managing our response to stress, which isn’t likely to just go away.
The best practices for mitigating the impacts of daily stress include: exercise, diet, meditation, and sex. Each of these improves our immune function through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. They are effective at minimizing the depressive effects of the stress-shift response, and should be considered our first line of defense. In addition to these beneficial activities, numerous tools can be used to enhance these effects. CBD has proven to fit right in line.
As an analgesic, anxiolytic, and antidepressant, CBD addresses the primary causes and symptoms of chronic stress. The analgesic effects of CBD have been shown to counteract the impact of stress-related inflammation. It has been used to sooth soft tissue and to calm areas of hyper-sensitization. As an anxiolytic, it has proved to reduce anxiety associated with socializing and to increase confidence in communication. Acting as an anti-depressant, it counteracts the effects of stress and helps maintain a general state of well being. Each of these actions helps ease the body into states of deeper relaxation, and promotes robust sexuality.
Sex is layered and complex activity. From the underlying biological systems to the communication and trust involved, it’s no walk in the park for most people. Concerns around sexual functions like maintaining an erection, producing adequate lubrication, and inhibited sex drives can create enormous mental barriers to the enjoyment of intimacy. On top of that, anxiety surrounding communication is one of the biggest factors affecting the frequency and quality of sex in long term partners. No one should feel ashamed of experiencing any of these issues or insecurities.With such a complex network of biological and behavioral signaling underlying our most fundamental desires, initiating and maintaining a sexual relationship is a complicated process. Start by sharing.
Opening up to a partner is tremendously difficult for many people. With a million thoughts outside the bedroom, and possible feelings of nervousness inside, it can be a challenge to get started. The best method is to begin with light touch, and allow the tactile sensation to draw your attention together. Maintaining a loving and sustained touch as you massage your partner promotes communication and openness. Infused intimacy oil can be used to soften your touch, and to add the benefits of CBD for trust and relaxation. This can help to work through the physical and emotional areas of tension that stand in the way of your sexual desire.
Allowing the CBD infused intimacy oil to subtly activate your natural responses, give it time to embolden your discussion and lead you deeper into each other. Dedicate the presence to really explore and breathe deeply together, allowing yourselves to express your desires, your fears, your fantasies, and your love. This wondrous molecule is designed to draw us into “the felt presence of direct experience,” which is the primer for true intimacy and connection.
Sharing these deeply seated feelings and emotions with your partner is the basis for sustained intimacy, and the beginning of an immensely powerful sexual connection. From there, the infused intimacy oil will help guide your bodies into place. By acting to stimulate your bodies’ natural sexual responses, you can be assured that the deep intimacy developed through this practice will transition gracefully into physical union. Remember to breathe, to share, and to be present as you and your partner delve into ever deepening states of euphoria and connection.