What are CB1 Receptors? [EXPLAINED]

Putting the endocannabinoid system under the microscope
Nicole Richter Nicole Richter / Updated on June 10, 2019

What are CB1 Receptors

If you are anything like us, you will find the exploration of how cannabis works in the human body to be incredibly fascinating. Over the last few decades, intense research has discovered a few of the mysteries behind why cannabis creates various medicinal and psychoactive effects in the human body.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) have the ability to elicit their healing effects through the interaction that they have with the body’s ECS. This system is integral to our physiologies, and is responsible for an array of bodily processes like our immune response, anxiety, pain sensation, appetite, sleep, memory, metabolism.

The ECS consists of two different receptors that are designed to accept cannabinoids. These cannabinoid receptors are known as CB1 and CB2. For the purpose of this article, we will be taking a closer look at the CB1 receptors. These are the receptors that are essential to a healthy functioning brain.

The Endocannabinoid System and CB1 Receptors

Before we dive into the CB1 receptors themselves, we first need to explore the ECS. Discovered in the 1990s by scientists who were studying the effects that cannabis has on the body, and having its name derived from the cannabis plant, the endocannabinoid system is a type of communication system that is found in both the body and brain.

Consisting of a collection of specialized lipids, along with their cannabinoids and the enzymes that help to respond to illness and maintain basic actions, the ECS has an effect on various functions, including energy, organ function, metabolism, and circulation. Through various interactions, the ECS is believed to affect and play a vital role in a multitude of physiological symptoms including memory, mood, inflammation, sleep, anxiety, stress levels, appetite, digestion, and more.

Although only recently discovered, cannabinoid receptors are believed to play a very important role in the human body. When the receptors are activated by cannabinoids (like THC or CBD), they are thought to alter how the body regulates itself. Up until today, only two cannabinoid receptors have been discovered: the CB1 and CB2 receptors, and both have very different responsibilities within the human body.

Molecules such as terpenes and cannabinoids fit into specific receptors within the ECS. Researchers would say that molecules such as THC activate certain cannabinoid receptors, i.e., the CB1 receptors. These receptors, and the CB2 receptors for that matter, work like a lock and key when they are flooded with cannabinoids. For instance; when a patient vapes, smokes or ingests cannabis flowers, edibles, or a concentrate.

The ECS also produces its own cannabinoids, and this is actually the reason that it exists. When a person consumes cannabinoids, terpenes, or any other chemicals that happen to bind with receptors found in the ECS, technically speaking, this system of naturally produced cannabinoids is just being supplemented.

In 1992, a research study reported that the ECS produces an endocannabinoid in the brain that is known as anandamide. Discovered by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, anandamide reportedly binds to CB1 receptors that are found in the brain and nervous system.

The CB1 receptor was discovered in 1990, while the CB2 receptors were discovered shortly after, in 1992. It is believed that these two receptors initiate significantly different signalling mechanisms. They are expressed in very different ways, including how they appear in different parts of the body.

The cannabinoid known as THC has been found to have a very high binding affinity to CB1 receptors that are found in the brain, connective tissues, central nervous system, glands, and related organs. This is one of the reasons that consuming cannabis strains that are high in THC level often have a very potent effect – providing patients with relief from pain, depression, and nausea while delivering an often strong psychoactive high.

So What Exactly are CB1 Receptors?

CB1 receptors are typically found on nerve cells on the spinal cord and brain, which is how cannabinoids are able to create effects that deal with pain and memory. But, they have also been found in organs and tissues like the endocrine glands, white blood cells, spleen, and parts of the reproductive, urinary, and gastrointestinal tracts. In addition to their memory and pain effects, CB1 receptors are also believed to affect appetite and sleep. Since the CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain, they are also responsible for the psychoactive effects associated with cannabis.

When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids from the product bind with CB1 receptors and these receptors transmit signals to the body. Cannabinoids have the ability to give much-needed relief to patients who suffer from a wide variety of medical conditions. The cannabinoid molecules from cannabis enter the body and activate specific receptors that are found naturally in the body.

In the body, the primary job of CB1 receptors is to help regulate sleep, appetite, memory, and pain sensation. When these CB1 receptors are exposed to cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, they start to overreact and therefore elevate the positive responses from the body’s CB1 receptors.

The Importance of CB1 Receptors

Cannabinoids help to regulate and coordinate everything that we think, feel and do by interacting or binding with the ECS’s CB1 or CB2 receptors. Just like a key fits into a lock, cannabinoids are designed to connect with the receptors. When the two link, it stimulates the receiving neuron into action which triggers a set of events to pass the message along and carry out multiple cellular responses that are needed for homeostasis and healthy functioning.

CB1 receptors are important to general health. Researchers have discovered that mice which don’t have CB1 receptors demonstrate “psychological abnormalities” like enlarged amygdalas (the part of the brain responsible for motivation and emotions) and increased anxiety. Genetic studies report that CB1 receptors are crucial for reducing and controlling anxiety at times of high-stress. Ultimately, having less or no CB1 receptors could cause complications.

Final Thoughts on CB1 Receptors

Both the CB1 and CB2 receptors are the two main receptors in the body that seem to truly unlock the various health benefits that are associated with cannabis. The unlocking behavior of these receptors is why many researchers have deemed the receptors as the “locks” and the cannabinoids as the “key.”

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