Cannabis Science

21 February 2019

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

And why is it so important?

By Mell Green

Most health nerds are familiar with the idea of boosting their immune system to maintain optimal health by taking supplements when defenses are low. But, what if there was another physiological system in the human body that, when deficient, could disrupt your overall health, i.e. your body’s homeostasis? That is where the endocannabinoid system (ECS) comes into play. While many still condemn the use of cannabis as medicine, don’t let people tell you there’s a lack of scientific backing for cannabis’ medicinal properties.

In a previous article, we briefly discussed research is showing how CBD works in the body, in conjunction with the ECS when it comes to optimal health — which has not only legitimized cannabis as medicine in the public eye, but has also expanded our understanding of human biology and recognition for the special relationship shared between cannabis and the ECS. In this article, we revisit what the ECS is and take a look at why it’s so important to our understanding of all cannabinoids and not just CBD.

The discovery of the Endocannabinoid System

The ECS is a vital molecular system in our body that is responsible for maintaining balance in the body by regulating a multitude of bodily functions. The ECS is comprised of cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) which, in turn, regulate the synthesis and breakdown of active cannabinoid compounds present in the immune system and nervous system.

Discovered in the early 90’s by scientist and professor Raphael Mechoulam, in collaboration with NIMH researchers William Devane and Dr. Lumir Hanus. Initially, they were trying to find where and how the psychoactive compound in cannabis, THC, binds and interacts with our body. In their findings, they noticed the body produces its own natural compounds that elicited a similar effect to cannabis.

Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and Dr. Lumir Hanus in 1992
Dr. Lumir Hanus and Dr. Bill Devane in 2009

The ultimate goal of the ECS is homeostasis. Our bodies respond to changes in temperature hot or cold, blood sugar levels high or low, and so on. Conditions need to be just right for proper cell function, and it’s the spectacular mechanism of the ECS that work to draw them back into balance when things move out of place. The ECS regulates all of the basic functions and patterns our body has to deal with, including:

  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Appetite
  • Metabolism
  • Pain
  • Memory
  • Immune Function
  • Inflammation
  • Neuroprotection and development
  • Digestion
  • Reproduction

How cannabinoids affect the Endocannabinoid System

The effects of cannabinoids are exerted after their interaction with specific CB receptors. They are placed in two categories: exogenous and endogenous cannabinoids. Endogenous cannabinoids (“endo” meaning “within”), regulate basic functions through their interaction with CB receptors and are naturally produced by our own body. The others, called exogenous cannabinoids, are commonly found in cannabis, such as THC and CBD, and come from external sources outside of the body.

Endogenous cannabinoids

Endocannabinoids found in our endocannabinoid system help regulate a wide variety of mechanisms, including facilitation of intercellular communication between different cell types. This mechanism has one purpose: to balance the effects of imbalances in our body, either due to injury, sickness, toxins, diet or lifestyle choices in general.

When a person experiences bone damage or brain trauma, for example, endocannabinoids come to the rescue by minimizing pain and tissue damage caused by these injuries. This action is done by reducing the release of sensitizers from the injured tissue, which then stabilizes nerve cells to protect the body from excessive firing. As a result, nearby immune cells are prevented from releasing proinflammatory chemicals. There are two major endogenous cannabinoids:

2-AG (2-arachidonoyl glycerol) – Found at higher concentrations in the brain.

Anandamide – Found mainly around areas of the body away from the brain, its name comes from the Sanskrit word, “Ananda”, meaning bliss.

These two endocannabinoids are synthesized by our body on demand, which means that they get swiftly broken down by enzymes after the body signals their release.

Exogenous Cannabinoids

The endocannabinoid system exists to respond to endocannabinoids produced by the body. However, research has found that this system also recognizes and responds to external cannabinoids, including those found in cannabis. In contrast to endocannabinoids, exogenous cannabinoids are taken in from the consumption of cannabis and can stay in the body for long periods of time. Their therapeutic effect causes our endocannabinoid system to activate to a greater extent, which allows it to work harder and more efficiently, and aromatic chemical compounds called terpenes – responsible for the most appealing qualities of cannabis such as smell – could be part of the reason why. In fact, evidence suggests that whole plant cannabis (that includes terpenes) may be superior to isolated parts of the cannabis plant.

How endocannabinoids and exogenous cannabinoids interact with our receptors

Terpenes are lipophilic compounds also known for their health benefits, as they can easily cross membranes, particularly the blood-brain barrier. When cannabis is consumed, terpenes get dissolved into lipids (fatty acids) and act on receptors, working similarly like antidepressants such as Prozac, augmenting GABA and also increasing dopamine and serotonin activity in the brain.

Trichomes on a cannabis leaf close up.

Terpenes also support other cannabinoids to produce what scientists refer to as the “Entourage Effect” (EE). Serving as inhibitors of THC’s intoxicating effects, terpenes increase the potential of cannabis to treat anxiety, pain, epilepsy, addiction, and more. This is why terpenes are such a critical piece of the cannabis puzzle when it comes to the interaction of cannabinoids in our bodies.

THC

The very reason exogenous cannabinoids have psychoactive and medicinal effects within the body is that we have an endocannabinoid system that they can interact with. For example, THC activates the CB1 receptors – found mainly in the brain – and gets you high. One might then ask, why am I not constantly high on my body’s own supply ?

Well, there are two reasons why. For one, the way that CB1 receptors interact with endocannabinoids isn’t the same for THC. Second, THC stays in our body longer because the fatty acids that break down anandamide doesn’t affect THC.

CBD

Unlike THC, which fits directly into the CB1 receptor, CBD does not fit into either type of receptor perfectly. Instead, without actually binding to CB receptors, it stimulates activity in the endocannabinoid system to promote homeostasis within the body, reduce sensations of pain, and inhibit inflammatory processes.

The applications of CBD continues to shine a beacon of hope in today’s research, and have been able to treat an expansive list of conditions. That list includes conditions such as asthma, strokes, mood disorders, diabetes, heart disease, and many more.

Implications for using cannabis as medicine

The truth of the matter is, cannabinoids found in cannabis impacts the endocannabinoid system, which indicates that it may be useful in treating a variety of medical conditions. We’ve previously discussed the ECS and its role in regulating a wide array of body processes to maintain our health. In our bodies, the density of receptors, amount of cannabinoids, and the amount of enzymes that break down cannabinoids vary. Any problems in these areas will cause difficulty in our ECS maintaining homeostasis; thus, our overall health suffers.

Researchers believe that the root of many conditions related to the immune system and inflammation could be the cause of some clinical endocannabinoid deficiency in the body.

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD) is where an individual produces a lower amount of cannabinoids than considered essential in the promotion of health, vitality, and well-being. When the ECS is out of balance, restoring balance is our body’s only response. If you have an endocannabinoid deficiency, the body struggles to reach homeostasis. That is why researchers are pointing at CECD as possible cause of the following conditions:

  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Depression
  • Migraines
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Pain
  • Anorexia
  • Neuropathy
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Motion Sickness
  • Autism
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

In cases where the body does not synthesize enough cannabinoids, many of these conditions have responded to plant-based (exogenous) cannabinoids. For example, cannabidiol (CBD), can help address this deficiency, thus, improve the ECS’s ability to function. While more research needs to be done, current research involving the ECS and utilizing cannabis is promising and could open the door to more methods to prevent and manage certain conditions.

Post author
Mell Green
Mell Green is an enthusiast of all things cannabis and writes content that represents some of the best things that we as a people can strive for: good health and happiness.
See more from Mell Green

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