Endocannabinoid System—Meet Cannabis
The possibilities for the therapeutic benefits of cannabis are endless. Studies have shown that cannabis can ease chronic pain, reduce seizures, alleviate insomnia, and so much more. The biological processes of cannabis’s interaction with the human body are really complex, which is why it has such varying effects and a positive impact on a wide range of medical conditions.
Cannabis’s effect on the human body is all thanks to the Endocannabinoid System, which was first discovered in 1988 by Allyn Howlett who identified the presence of cannabinoid receptors in the vertebrate brain. Then, in the early ’90s, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discovered the chemical cannabinoid neurotransmitters that bind to those receptors–hence, a match made in canna-neuro heaven.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a complex system known for “cell signaling,” a function that coordinates all cell actions in the human body. The combination of these cell actions determine how we feel, move, and act at any given moment. Within the ECS, endocannabinoids are compounds created by your body, and are similar to naturally occurring cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. You may have heard of THC, which is arguably the most well-known cannabinoid in cannabis.
What does the Endocannabinoid System do?
The endocannabinoid system is responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the human body. What is homeostasis, you ask? Homeostasis is the body’s way of maintaining a stable internal environment despite changes in the external environment. When something in your body is “off,” the endocannabinoid system kicks in, telling your body to do something about it. If your temperature is too high because you just ran your @$$ off, the endocannabinoid system tells your body to sweat so you can cool down. If your blood sugar is too low, your endocannabinoid system tells your body it wants a milkshake. Today, experts believe that maintaining homeostasis is the primary role of the ECS.
How does the Endocannabinoid System work?
When it comes to your body’s ECS, the three main components are: endocannabinoids, endocannabinoid receptors, and enzymes.
Here’s what they do:
Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids but are produced internally by your own body’s natural processes.
Experts have identified two key endocannabinoids so far:
- anandamide (AEA)
- 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
Both of these help ensure that all of your internal operations are a go and running smoothly. Your body creates them as needed or on demand. But that “on-demand” production makes it tough to know what average levels of endocannabinoids are for each human and why there is such variation.
These receptors are found everywhere in your body, and endocannabinoids like AEA and 2-AG stick to them to signal that the ECS needs to do something. Like, when you are in pain, endocannabinoid receptors bind with endocannabinoids and tell your body, ”Hey! OUCH!”
There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:
- CB1 receptors typically found in your central nervous system
- CB2 receptors, mainly found in your peripheral nervous system, especially in immune system cells
Endocannabinoids are nimble and can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors. The effects produced depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to. For example, endocannabinoids may target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to help relieve pain. Others may bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body has inflammation.
Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve done their job and have completed their mission.
There are two main enzymes responsible for this:
- fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA
- monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which typically breaks down 2-AG
Got it. But what does the ECS have to do with cannabis?
The cannabis plant produces cannabinoids that stimulate the ECS receptors in our bodies just like endocannabinoids do.
Cannabinoids mingle with presynaptic cells in our brains, so they can control the events that happen after the cells are activated. Think of cannabinoids as a smart switch for your presynaptic neurons. They control how much of a specific neurotransmitter, like dopamine, is released. As a result, it can have an impact on the number of messages received and sent by cells, and the feelings that come from them. In this case, the transfer of extra dopamine leads to feelings of happiness.
Speaking of happiness, here’s a little history for you: the first endocannabinoid ever discovered was named “anandamide,” after the Sanskrit word “ananda,” meaning bliss. When we consume cannabis, the cannabinoids hijack our primitive cellular makeup and alter the feelings and sensations we ultimately experience from it, like bliss.
How does cannabis interact with the body?
The Endocannabinoid System is complicated, and experts haven’t yet determined exactly how it works or all of its potential functions. However, recent research has been able to crack some of its code: there is evidence of a linkage of the ECS to many processes that take place in the human body.
Research has linked the Endocannabinoid System to the following processes:
- chronic pain
- immune system responses
- motor control
- cardiovascular system function
- muscle formation
- bone remodeling + growth
- liver function
- reproductive system function
- skin & nerve function
How does THC interact with the ECS?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the main cannabinoids found in cannabis. It’s the compound that gets you “high.”
Once in your body, THC interacts with your ECS by binding to receptors, just like endocannabinoids. It’s powerful because it can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, and leads to various effects on your body and mind. For example, THC may help to reduce pain, alleviate stress, and activate your body’s sensory pleasure response to food and positive emotions.
How does CBD interact with the ECS?
The other major cannabinoid found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t make you “high” and typically doesn’t cause any negative effects. It has its perks though, like calming anxiety, and helping to relieve pain, nausea, and other symptoms associated with multiple conditions.
Experts aren’t totally sure how CBD interacts with the ECS, but they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors in the same way THC does.
Instead, it’s believed that CBD prevents endocannabinoids from being broken down, so they have more of an effect on your body. Others believe that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t been discovered yet.
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