What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

First identified in the 1990s, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is composed of receptors found throughout the body that interact with naturally occurring cannabis-like substances called endocannabinoids. They also interact with cannabinoids, like THC. The first cannabinoid recognized was in the 1930s, long before scientists knew about the ECS. The relationship and synergy between cannabis and the body influenced the name of the system. Although recently discovered, the endocannabinoid system is nothing new to our bodies and has been around for a long time. It is not specific to the human body, and is also found in animals like mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles.

Organic cannabis

Cannabinoids work with the human body to help maintain homeostasis

Facts about the ECS:

  • Everybody has one
  • It serves an important role in regulating physical and psychological components in our body
  • Cannabinoids, found in cannabis, mimic the effects of our body's endocannabinoids
  • THC can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors
  • CBD does not interact with the ECS the same way THC does, and it is still unclear exactly what its role is

What Does It Do?

One of the main jobs of the ECS is to help maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is a relatively stable state of equilibrium or a tendency toward such a state between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements of an organism (Merriam-Webster). To simplify, it is your body's ability to maintain ideal functions and conditions regardless of what's happening around you. Do you have a fever? High blood pressure? Did you just get injured? When your body senses something off balance, the ECS is activated to help stabilize it.

3 components make up the ECS:

  • Endocannabinoids are produced as needed
  • Receptors, found throughout the body, bond with endocannabinoids and cannabinoids
  • Enzymes work to break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids
Some of the functions the ECS helps regulate include:

  • Appetite
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Mood
  • Motor Control
  • Pain
  • Pleasure
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Temperature

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are produced by the body to maintain homeostasis. The word "endo," short for endogenous, describes anything that is naturally created by the body. The word "cannabinoid" describes the chemical compounds naturally occurring in cannabis.

2 recognized endocannabinoids are:

  • Anandamide (AEA)
  • 2-Arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)

Receptors

Receptors bind to endocannabinoids to create change, and are found throughout the body, with a majority of them located in the central nervous system.

There are currently 2 types of receptors that have been identified:

  • CB1 - These receptors are located in the brain and nerves of the spinal cord (central nervous system)
  • CB2 - These receptors are located in the other major systems, including the immune system, peripheral nervous system, and digestive system
The effects of endocannabinoids are dependent on which one is activated, whether it binds to the CB1 or CB2 receptor, and where the receptor is located in the body. For example, endocannabinoids may attach to a CB1 receptor in the brain to improve psychological distress.

Receptors are located in places such as:

  • Blood Vessels
  • Bones
  • Brain
  • Heart
  • Immune Cells
  • Kidneys
  • Liver
  • Lungs
  • Pancreas
  • Skin
  • Skeletal Muscle
Receptors are focused and precise, only adjusting functions and systems that are off balance; endocannabinoids are only produced as needed.

Receptors bind to 3 different types of cannabinoids:

  • Endocannabinoids (made by the body)
  • Plant cannabinoids (plant made)
  • Synthetic cannabinoids (lab made)

Enzymes

Enzymes work to break down, or stop, the endocannabinoids and cannabinoids once the body has regained stabilization.

2 of the main enzymes that have been identified include:

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), breaks down AEA
  • Monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAGL), breaks down 2-AG

Treatment

Cannabis helps trigger the ECS, and research is being conducted to gain more knowledge about how the plant can help our bodies and what it can specifically do.

Many disorders, for example, fibromyalgia, have little treatment options as they affect many systems in the body. The relatively recent discovery of the ECS has intrigued researchers to study if these conditions are treatable with cannabis products.

Cannabinoids are already being used by patients to treat:

  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Pain
  • Epilepsy
  • Inflammation
  • Psychological Disorders
  • Withdrawal

Food For Thought

The cannabis plant clearly works with the human body. Where treatment is concerned, figuring out more about how the ECS works, which cannabinoids bind to which receptors, exactly how many receptors are in the body and where they are located, and the cannabinoid doses required will all need to be studied further before any definitive answers are made. It's encouraging to think that several illnesses and disorders that were once untreatable may soon have an effective treatment option.

Knowing this, it makes you wonder, what else can cannabis help treat? What else can it do for the human body?

Only time will tell.