The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a biological system composed of endocannabinoids, which are endogenous lipid-based retrograde neurotransmitters. The endocannabinoid system has been recognized as an important modulatory system in the function of the brain, endocrine, and immune tissues.
Endocannabinoid System: The Highlights
- The endocannabinoid system helps our brain, endocrine, and immune systems.
- Our bodies produce natural cannabinoids that interact with the endocannabinoid system.
- The cannabinoids extracted from the cannabis plant have similar structures to the ones our body produces.
- Thanks to their similar structure, the cannabis-derived cannabinoids can interact with the endocannabinoid system.
- Research on this topic is still far from definitive, but so far it seems that consuming cannabinoids can regulate your endocannabinoid system.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
Have you ever wondered how cannabis (or THC) affected our mood and mental state? Well, scientists did too. And that’s how they discovered the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a biological system composed of endocannabinoids, which are endogenous lipid-based retrograde neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors, and cannabinoid receptor proteins that are expressed throughout the mammalian central nervous system (including the brain) and peripheral nervous system.
To put it more simply, ECS is are like the body’s natural THC. In fact, as you probably guessed by now, endocannabinoids got their name from cannabis.
Endocannabinoid system: history and discovery
The discovery of ECS goes back over 50 years ago. It all started with a scientific breakthrough in 1964, when a scientist from Israel named Raphael Mechoulam was able to identify and isolate THC for the first time – just prior to which they were able to identify CBD as well.
The ability to isolate these cannabinoids for the first time ever led to the discovery of ECS. They also discovered that ECS is a biological system that can be found in just about any living thing with vertebrae. In fact, Dr. Mechoulam first discovered ECS in a plant! (Go figure.)
By 1988, research conducted on rats uncovered the first cannabinoid receptor in a brain.
The scientists eventually discovered that many more of these receptors was present throughout the brain. This breakthrough started to make those in the health community wonder did humans have these same receptors in their brain.
Role of the endocannabinoid system in human health
Once these discoveries in the rats were made, they started using a synthetic form of THC to start locating these cannabinoid receptors within the human brain.
(Side Note: This synthetic THC, marketed as dronabinol (Marinol), and nabilone (Cesamet), are both FDA approved drugs for the treatment of severe nausea and wasting syndrome.)
Scientists eventually found out that these cannabinoid receptors are found all throughout the body, not just in the brain. This showed that they had a wide array of functions.
Here the regions these receptors are in:
- CB1 receptors are abundant in the central nervous system
- CB2 receptors are more often found on immune cells, in the gastrointestinal tract, and in the peripheral nervous system
From there, it was discovered that these receptors (led by the endocannabinoid system) provided assistance to a slew of daily bodily functions such as:
- Appetite, digestion, hunger
- Reproduction and fertility
- Pleasure and reward
- Motor control
- Temperature regulation
- Immune function
The ECS is the chemical messengers that inform your body when to start and stop these bodily functions. They help maintain harmony and balance in the body, which also called homeostasis.
Key components of the endocannabinoid system
Because the endocannabinoid system is so vital to homeostasis, it is widespread throughout the animal kingdom.
ECS has three key components:
- Cannabinoid receptors found on the surface of cells
- Metabolic enzymes that break down endocannabinoids after they are used
- Endocannabinoids, small molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors
Let’s break down each component and see the significance of them.
As mentioned earlier, cannabinoid receptors are found all throughout the human body, not just in the brain.
These receptors sit on the surface of cells and “listen” to conditions outside the cell. They determine what’s going on inside the cell and make an appropriate cellular response. The main two receptors are CB1 and CB2.
They’re not the only cannabinoid receptors but they’re the first ones to be discovered and the ones scientists study the most. In fact, both of these receptors are the ones that respond to cannabis (THC), resulting in people feeling “high”.
This component of ECS are molecules that bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors. (Just like THC does when a person uses cannabis/marijuana)
Endocannabinoids are naturally produced by the human body within the cells. When you break down the term, you see that…. “Endo” means “within,” as in within the body.
This component of ECS is responsible for quickly breaking down and destroying endocannabinoids once they’re used & no longer needed.
Difference between Endocannabinoids vs Phytocannabinoids
You now know that endocannabinoids are cannabinoids that are naturally produced in our bodies. But what are phytocannabinoids?
Phytocannabinoids are naturally-occurring and concentrated in the oil resin of the cannabis leaves and buds.
So cannabis plants and other cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) are all phytocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoid System and CBD
For the past few years, CBD has been gaining popularity, especially in the medical field. Cannabidiol – commonly referred to as CBD – is a compound found in marijuana and in hemp that does interact with the ECS.
One of the most crucially important qualities of CBD is its lack of psycho-activity. In layperson’s terms, this means that CBD won’t get you high. Instead, CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system, which, in turn, regulates bodily functions such as appetite, sleep, pain, etc.
Although CBD does perform multiple actions in the body, its best-known function in the ECS is its potential to inhibit the activity of the enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH).
FAAH breaks down anandamide, one of the body’s endogenous cannabinoids, which is known to bind to the ECS’s CB1 receptor.
CBD is interesting because it can affect overall levels of endocannabinoids in the brain, referred to as “endocannabinoid tone.”
This may help treat mental issues such as anxiety disorder and depression.
In addition, a study conducted by the Translational Psychiatry in 2012 discovered that CBD enhances anandamide signaling and alleviates psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia.
Endocannabinoid System and THC
THC is the chemical that’s known to cause the “high” affect people experience when smoking marijuana. When a person smokes marijuana, THC overwhelms the EC system, quickly attaching to cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body.
This hinders with the ability of natural cannabinoids to do their job of fine-tuning communication between neurons, which can throw the entire system off balance.
Because ECS has cannabinoid receptors throughout the body, THC impairs your motor and cognitive skills.
- Slow down a person’s reaction time such as when their driving
- Cause temporary memory loss
- Cause anxiety
- Affect judgment skills
And yes, THC does increase appetite in people aka “the munchies” according to a 2018 study by the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior.
While THC provides a person the feeling of euphoria, it can negatively impact a person’s brain pattern over time. THC can change how the EC system works in these brain areas, which can lead to problems with memory, addiction, and mental health.
The future of the endocannabinoid system in healthcare and wellness
As we continue to sort through the emerging science of cannabis and cannabinoids, one thing remains clear: a functional cannabinoid system is essential for health.
With that said, the future of ECS in relation to healthcare and wellness looks pretty bright. More doctors are starting to open their mind and recognize the therapeutic potential of cannabis.
In fact, medical cannabis may one day become a go-to treatment option for a wide range of illnesses such as:
- Crohn’s disease
- Chronic pain
- Multiple sclerosis
- Tourette syndrome
- Anxiety disorder
As more research gets conducted, it is becoming more evident that CBD will eventually be a regular treatment option for those dealing with any of those ailments or other issues.
As more people discover that their body is covered with cannabinoid receptors, the ECS will become more focused on. The day could be coming where people dealing with chronic ailments will be more open to treating their condition with CBD and other forms of medical cannabis.
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