The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is an intricate cell-signalling system found within our bodies. Cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis. Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by our bodies. These Endocannabinoids are similar to cannabinoids, but they’re produced naturally by our bodies. Therefore “endocannabinoid” simply put means cannabis-like substances that naturally occurs inside of us. These help maintain internal bodily functions to run smoothly. The ECS exists and is active in your body even if you do not use cannabis.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
In other words, the endocannabinoid system is a complex network of endocannabinoid molecules, enzymes and receptors. This system is mainly part of our central nervous system. When humans and other animals consume cannabinoids, they interact with the endocannabinoid system and this produces various beneficial effects. The endocannabinoid system helps to regulate a number of physiological and cognitive processes. This in turn helps to improve “homeostasis,” or bodily equilibrium. Among other bodily functions, the endocannabinoid system plays a role in regulating appetite, mood, pain sensation, and sleep.
Let’s briefly look at how the endocannabinoid system works. When a cannabinoid is consumed, it binds with a cannabinoid receptor. At the same time, an endocannabinoid neurotransmitter binds to this same cannabinoid receptor. After this process, certain enzymes synthesize and degrade this endocannabinoid.
How Does the ECS Work?
The ECS uses endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes as its three core components. Lets discuss these:
Everyones body is riddled with thousands of receptors. These receptors require endocannabinoids to bind to them in order to signal to the ECS when action must occur.
To date, there are two main endocannabinoid receptors. Those found in the central nervous system, referrered to CB1 receptors. As well as those found in the peripheral nervous system (immune cells) referred to as CB2 receptors. Endocannabinoids can bind to either of these receptors. The resulting effect depends on where the receptor is within the body and which endocannabinoid it binds to.
Once the Endocannabinoids have completed their function, enzymes are responsible for breaking them down.
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
Homeostasis: The Role of the Endocannabinoid System
Research has linked the ECS to the following body processes:
- chronic pain
- bone remodeling and growth
- liver function
- inflammation and other immune system responses
- appetite and digestion
- learning and memory
- cardiovascular system function
- muscle formation
- motor control
- reproductive system function
- skin and nerve function
What Is Homeostasis?
Homeostasis, which is the process of reaching a stable equilibrium within your internal body environment is aided through all the above mentioned functions. For example, if an external energy, such as being injured which causes you pain, this pain will cause your body’s homeostasis to be off balance. This is when your ECS kicks in to help your body return to its ideal place of operation.
Basically, homeostasis is your body’s efforts to keep everything in the right zone. It tries to keep your internal environment stable and optimal no matter what’s going on in the environment around you. When something is operating outside of the right range, your body activates the ECS to help correct it. So when you’re really hot and begin to sweat, thank your ECS for working to cool you down. Stomach growling? That’s your ECS helping remind you to eat because you need fuel.
The ECS does this via cannabinoid receptors found in select tissues. We have (at least) two types of cannabinoid receptors:
- CB1 which is in the central nervous system (brain and nerves of the spinal cord)
- CB2 which is in the peripheral nervous system (nerves in your extremities), the digestive system, and specialized cells in the immune system
Your body and the Endocannabinoid System
Your body is super smart and therefore only activates the ECS when it is needed! For example, if your hormones are imbalanced, it will work to balance them without changing the functioning of other bodily functions. After the initial activation to create balance, our bodies then send along enzymes to break down and prevent them from going too far and upsetting the balance in the opposite direction.
Due to this fantastic trait of cannabis products to stimulate the ECS, they’re obvious targets for potential treatments. This is leading to extensive research ongoing throughout the world. For example, a modern drug, nabilone is made from synthetic cannabinoids, meaning they have been made in a lab to recreate natural cannabinoids.
Initial research conducted on the endocannabinoid established that ECS receptors were only present in the brain and nerves. Although, this has since been ruled out and modern scientists have found that the receptors are present throughout the body, including in our skin, organs and bones etc. Endocannabinoids are therefore, one of the most universal and multifacted signaling molecules known to mankind.
THC and the Endocannabinoid System
THC causes the brain to release dopamine, which leads to the positive emotions and “high” experienced when recreational marijuana is consumed. This THC cannot be synthesized in the same way as other cannabinoids, so it stays with the cannabinoid receptor for a much longer time. This is why people who consume THC feel high after the other effects have subsided. On the other hand, CBD prevents these enzymes from synthesizing and degrading the endocannabinoid that is attached to the CBD receptor. This causes feelings of relaxation, and consumers do not feel high at any point.
Essentially, THC activates the CB1 receptors, and CBD blocks them. The 0.3% THC in full-spectrum CBD products is not enough to cause any psychoactive effects. Any minimal psychoactive effects in these products are also inhibited by the effects of CBD and the other non-psychoactive cannabinoids. Recreational marijuana with high concentrations of CBD could even actually prevent THC-induced psychosis.
We now know that the ECS plays a big role in maintaining stability of our internal processes. However, it is important to note that simply consuming cannabis or activating the ECS will always results in our bodily functions becoming ‘right’. Keeping this in mind, there is much to still much to research and still a lot we do not know about the Endocannabinoid system in the human body.