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By Max Sargent

Cannabidiol (CBD) is the subject of a vast amount of research into all manner of applications. Today, we'll investigate what relation this cannabinoid might have to addiction and how it could interact with the brain's reward system. Complex, fascinating and powerful, this ancient part of the brain locks in hedonic behaviours for our own good. Sometimes though, it can go wrong and addiction can occur, ranging from nuisance to catastrophic.

What Is Addiction?

Broadly, addiction is defined as a compulsively repeated behaviour despite it having a negative consequence and/or someone wants to stop the behaviour but finds themselves unable to. Some indications of addiction might be:

  • Spending money you cannot afford
  • Continuing a behaviour that negatively impacts relationships
  • Continuing a behaviour that negatively impacts your health
  • Being unable to stop or experiencing unpleasant withdrawals when stopping
  • Experiencing cravings to perform a behaviour
  • Finding yourself making excuses to perform a behaviour

Addiction occurs when a behaviour or substance triggers the brain's reward system. Though not the only mechanism at work, the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine is a crucial part of understanding how addiction works.

Simply put, a behaviour or substance can cause a release of dopamine—which is the brain's reward chemical. Dopamine's release tells the brain to repeat that behaviour—it is the brain's way of ingraining what it takes to be beneficial and making sure we repeat it. When a person repeats this behaviour, once again, dopamine will be released. As time goes on, dopamine receptors become less sensitive to the neurotransmitter, and so a larger amount of dopamine is required to give the same feelings of reward.[1] This is part of why people develop tolerances and why, with any addiction, it tends to become more extreme over time.

Addiction is further split into two categories: physical/chemical addiction and behavioural/process addiction.

What Is Dopamine?
  • What Is A Physical Addiction?

Physical addiction is one where the substance taken directly causes a release of dopamine. For instance, heroin, alcohol and nicotine are all powerfully chemically addictive.

This type of addiction is characterised by powerful, physical withdrawals. In fact, alcohol withdrawals can be so severe that they can be fatal.[2] These withdrawals cause intense cravings and can make it extremely hard for people to escape physical addictions. Physical addictions are not only an issue for those who are severely addicted, but even overcoming a relatively minor addiction can be difficult.

  • What Is A Behavioural Addiction

On the other hand, behavioural addiction is one where a certain behaviour triggers the reward system. Gambling, social media, and smartphones all tap into the reward circuitry to trigger addictive behaviours in users.[3]

Behavioural addictions tend to be triggered by certain stimuli rather than causing withdrawals. For instance, a gambling addict without access to a phone, technology or anything to remind them of gambling could go days without thinking about it, only to find themselves unable to stop themselves as soon as they are confronted by something they associate with the addiction. Physical addictions, too, are made worse by environmental triggers but will work internally of their own accord as well.

For this reason, behavioural addictions tend to be slightly easier to overcome as people do not get the same withdrawals. On the flip side, many behavioural addictions are so widespread—their triggers so ubiquitous within our societies—that avoiding associated stimuli can be almost impossible.

What Is Addiction?
  • What Is The Difference Between Addiction And Dependency?

Addiction and dependency are actually two terms that have been mostly removed within the medical and scientific community, at least in relation to substances. Both are now characterised as substance use disorder (SUD). The reason for this? A physical addiction tends to also be a dependency on some level. The terms are so interchangeable that they ceased to have any distinct, informative meaning.

One of the other traits of physical addiction is that the body becomes physically dependent on the substance to function correctly. Whereas most people are inhibited by alcohol consumption, a severe alcoholic will require alcohol for normal, day-to-day functioning. This is an extreme example of physical dependency.

Behavioural addictions tend not to cause dependencies in this way.

What Is The ECS?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of receptors and channels which runs throughout the bodies of humans and other animals. Complex, wide ranging, and thought to have influence over a very large number of physical and mental processes, we are only just beginning to discover the role that the ECS plays in our lives.

The ECS is also now acknowledged to play a key role in the brain's reward system, in part by maintaining physical and emotional homeostasis (essentially, order and balance). Dysregulation of the ECS is thought to play a role in addiction by increasing stress levels, craving and poor emotional states, and impairing synaptic plasticity. One question for which there is not a clear answer yet is: does addiction cause this dysregulation, or does the dysregulation cause addiction?

It is highly possible that there is an interaction between the two, each amplifying the other.

2-AG and Anandamide (AEA) are the two most abundant neurotransmitters in the ECS. 2-AG is a full agonist of both the CB1 and CB2 receptors, whilst AEA has a particular affinity to the CB1 receptor. Both are made on demand by the body, and have been observed to trigger reward responses in animal studies.[4]

  • What Is CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is the second most well-known phytocannabinoid (one which forms in plants), after THC. Many of the cannabinoids found in cannabis are able to interact with the ECS – hence the ability to cause a high.

THC works directly by binding with the CB1 receptor and mimicking anandamide, but in higher quantities which are harder to break down.

CBD, on the other hand, works more indirectly. It inhibits the fatty acid FAAH, which is responsible for the natural breakdown of anandamide. By inhibiting FAAH, it means that a greater quantity of the naturally occurring endocannabinoid anandamide is available to the CB1 receptor – thereby affecting the whole ECS and the body.

CBD And Addiction

So does CBD have a role to play in relation to SUD? So far, studies relating to CBD are in their infancy, and it's too early to say what, if any role CBD may have to play in addiction. We can say with certainty that research into CBD is booming and that it is being studied in relation to all manner of applications, including its interaction with addiction.

The role CBD could play is highly complex, affecting many more systems than just the ECS. In fact, research is looking into CBD's effect on the following systems: dopaminergic, opioidergic, serotonergic, in relation to addiction.[5]

  • Which Substance Addictions Might CBD Affect?

CBD's interaction with different SUDs is an important facet of understanding the role it could play. Does it exhibit equal effects across all addictive substances, or does it seem to have greater efficacy with some substances over others?

Among others, some of the major SUDs being researched in relation to CBD are:

Tobacco (nicotine) Alcohol
Cocaine Heroin or opiate
Methamphetamine Cannabis (specifically THC)

With the exception of cannabis on that list, each of those drugs causes physical addictions – relating mostly to the dopaminergic system. So what is the role that CBD might play?

CBD's effects could be manifold. Research is looking into whether CBD could cause neurogenesis and have neuroprotective properties, which may help build new pathways and defend the brain against addiction.[5]

  • CBD And Serotonin

Likewise, research is striving to understand the serotonergic potential of CBD, as it appears to be an agonist of the 5-HT1A receptor.[6] Serotonin, a major neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and sociability, is thought to play a big role in addiction. It has been observed that animals and humans living in unhappy circumstances – circumstances which do not promote the release of serotonin – are more likely to develop addictive behaviours. Therefore, it is thought that reversing this may make people less susceptible to addiction.

Studies point towards selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors as being beneficial for overcoming addiction, as they increase serotonin concentrations and thus reduce stress and anxiety – two known triggers for addiction.[7] This demonstrates the importance of understanding a drug's serotonergic properties, in order to understand what role it may play in addiction.

  • Modulation Of Dopamine Response

Serotonin is just one factor in modulating addiction. The CB1 and CB2 receptors, and TRPV1 channels are also involved in the dopaminergic system, and are being investigated in relation to CBD.[8]

Whilst findings are so far unclear, as most research has been conducted in animals, it is thought that if CBD could be harnessed to modulate these systems in a beneficial way, then it could have some role to play in managing addiction.

Is CBD Safe?

On the whole, CBD is considered generally safe. This is one of the reasons it is being hopefully pursued concerning many conditions.

However, the FDA in the US is yet to approve any CBD based medications beyond Epidolex until some essential safety questions have been answered.

These are:

  • What effect does it have on the liver?
  • What is the effective/maximal dose?
  • Which method of administration is most effective/least dangerous?
  • What are the long-term health effects of regular CBD consumption?

Clearly, until these questions can be answered, not only can we be certain of how safe CBD is, but administering it in the most effective way will not be possible either.

That being said, far from being to CBD's detriment, these concerns simply underline the need for larger-scale research so that we can have answers and then start using CBD to its full potential, whatever that may be.

Is CBD Addictive?

CBD's potential for interacting with addiction would be severely hampered if it was itself addictive. The World Health Organization has concluded that CBD is safe and non-addictive.[9]

Can CBD Help With Addiction?

It's too early to say for now, though there is hope.

However, if you are looking for help with addiction, you cannot expect CBD to be a magic bullet. The first port of call should always be a medical professional, and if you're interested in using CBD as part of your addiction treatment, discuss this with them.

As mentioned, one of the major issues with current research is that it focuses on animal trials, the results of which have not always extrapolated to human ones. Even where they do, the samples are too small to properly generalise.

However, as research continues, revelations about the relationship between CBD and addiction can be expected.

Medical DisclaimerInformation listed, referenced or linked to on this website is for general educational purposes only and does not provide professional medical or legal advice.

Royal Queen Seeds does not condone, advocate or promote licit or illicit drug use. Royal Queen Seeds Cannot be held responsible for material from references on our pages or on pages to which we provide links, which condone, advocate or promote licit or illicit drug use or illegal activities. Please consult your Doctor/Health care Practitioner before using any products/methods listed, referenced or linked to on this website.

External Resources:
  1. Dopamine and Addiction - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  2. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly – here's why https://theconversation.com
  3. Social Networking Sites and Addiction: Ten Lessons Learned https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  4. Endocannabinoid signaling in reward and addiction https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  5. Role of Cannabidiol in the Therapeutic Intervention for Substance Use Disorders https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  6. The Endocannabinoid System and Cannabidiol's Promise for the Treatment of Substance Use Disorder https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  7. Efficacy of antidepressants in substance use disorders with and without comorbid depression. A systematic review and meta-analysis - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  8. Possible Receptor Mechanisms Underlying Cannabidiol Effects on Addictive-like Behaviors in Experimental Animals https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  9. CANNABIDIOL (CBD) Critical Review Report https://www.who.int
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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