The Endocannabinoid System

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a complex cell-signaling system that is present and active in your body, even if you do not use cannabis. It was discovered in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC, perhaps the most popular cannabinoid of the bunch. Research is still being conducted, as there is much to learn about the ECS. We have, however, come to learn that the ECS is vital in establishing and maintaining human health. It plays a prominent role regulating a variety of processes and functions including, but not limited to:

  • Appetite
  • Memory
  • Mood
  • Reproduction and fertility
  • Sleep

Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.

How does it work?

The Endocannabinoid System involves three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids, but they’re produced by your body.

Experts have identified two key endocannabinoids so far:

  • anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)

These help keep internal functions running smoothly. Your body produces them as needed, making it difficult to know what typical levels are for each. 

Endocannabinoid Receptors

These receptors are found throughout your body. Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the Endocannabinoid System needs to take action.

There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:

  • CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in the central nervous system
  • CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells

Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The effects that result depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to. 

For example, endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders. 

Enzymes

Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function.

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

What are its functions?

The Endocannabinoid System is complicated, and experts haven’t yet determined everything about how it works or all of its potential functions. Studies and evidence thus far, however, may support its role in addressing issues related to:

  • appetite and digestion
  • metabolism 
  • chronic pain
  • inflammation and other immune system responses
  • mood 
  • learning and memory 
  • motor control
  • sleep
  • cardiovascular system function 
  • muscle formation 
  • bone remodeling and growth
  • liver function
  • reproductive system function
  • stress
  • skin and nerve function 

The Endocannabinoid System, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body’s organs, serves as a bridge between the body and mind. As we continue to evaluate the emerging science of cannabis and cannabinoids, one thing remains clear: a functional cannabinoid system is essential for health.

Will Cannabis Help?

Now that you’re aware, the question that beckons is: Can an individual enhance his/her/their overall health and wellness by using supplemental cannabis? The answer is a resounding yes. Beyond treating symptoms, beyond the possibility of curing disease, cannabis helps prevent disease and maintain health by promoting homeostasis.

Now that you know that you’re hardwired for cannabis, it’s time to learn about cannabinoids, naturally occurring chemical compounds that are found in cannabis.

References:

  1. Lu, Hui-Chen, and Ken Mackie. “An Introduction to the Endogenous Cannabinoid System.” Biological psychiatry vol. 79,7 (2016): 516-25. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.07.028
  2. Chiou, Lih-Chu et al. “Targeting the cannabinoid system for pain relief?.” Acta anaesthesiologica Taiwanica : official journal of the Taiwan Society of Anesthesiologists vol. 51,4 (2013): 161-70. doi:10.1016/j.aat.2013.10.004
  3. Fride, Ester. “The endocannabinoid-CB receptor system: Importance for development and in pediatric disease.” Neuro endocrinology letters vol. 25,1-2 (2004): 24-30.
  4. Sharkey, Keith A, and John W Wiley. “The Role of the Endocannabinoid System in the Brain-Gut Axis.” Gastroenterology vol. 151,2 (2016): 252-66. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2016.04.015

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