What is the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the Endocannabinoid System? Is this a real thing?

The Endocannabinoid System (aka ECS) is a complex cell-signaling system inside the human body. Never heard of it? Maybe because it was only identified in the early 1990’s – by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid. It is this association with cannabis that gives the ECS its name. But whether or not you use cannabis, the ECS exists and is active in your body – and every mammal's body.

Research on cannabis has been limited due to its illegality. But in 1988 researchers in a government-funded study at the St. Louis University School of Medicine determined that the brain has receptor sites that specifically respond to compounds found in cannabis. These receptors – called CB1 – are mostly found in the central nervous system (CNS) but also in the lungs liver and kidneys. They are the most abundant type of neurotransmitter receptor in the brain. And in 1990, a team led by Lisa Matsuda at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) identified and cloned the DNA sequence that encodes a cannabinoid receptor in the brain. In examining how THC binds to the receptors, the NIMH team discovered that when given to mice who lack this receptor, THC had no effect. This demonstrated that the cannabinoid receptors in the brain are activated when THC binds to it.    

Shortly thereafter, researchers found another cannabinoid receptor – called CB2 – that is found throughout the immune system and peripheral nervous system (PNS).  This led to the additional discovery of cannabinoids naturally produced by the body. These endocannabinoids help keep internal functions running smoothly.  So far, experts have identified two key endocannabinoids: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylgyerol (2-AG). These endocannabinoids are activated when needed and might target the CB1 receptors in the spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body is experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders. Once these endocannabinoids have done their job, enzymes break them down.

The ECS is complicated and experts have not figured out all its potential functions.  We do know that research has linked the ECS to the following processes:

  •       Appetite and digestion
  •       Metabolism
  •       Chronic pain
  •       Inflammation & other immune system responses
  •       Mood
  •       Learning & Memory
  •       Motor control
  •       Cardiovascular system function
  •       Muscle formation
  •       Bone remodeling & growth
  •       Liver function
  •       Reproductive system function
  •       Stress
  •       Skin & nerve function

Experts believe that the ECS functions to maintain balance in the body (homeostasis). When the balance is disrupted – for example, pain from an injury – the ECS kicks in to help your body return to its ideal operation.

When the body does not produce high enough endocannabinoid levels or there is some dysfunction with the ECS system (called Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency, or CECD), the body becomes imbalanced. Experts believe this imbalance could contribute to certain conditions, such as migraines, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome – all of which have no clear underlying cause.

In addition to the endocannabinoids produced by the body, there are cannabinoids that naturally occur in the cannabis plant and they bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the same way. These cannabinoids are called phytocannabinoids. The most well-known phytocannabinoids are THC and CBD, but there are over 100 different cannabinoids found in cannabis. THC interacts with your ECS by binding to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the same way as endocannabinoids.  CBD, however, interacts differently with the ECS. According to Stony Brook University scientists, CBD functions, rather, as an endocannabinoid reuptake and breakdown inhibitor. CBD’s neuroprotective effects against seizures, and its many other health benefits, may, in fact, be a result of this enhancement of endocannabinoid tone and levels.

While there is still much to learn, we know that both endo- and phyto-cannabinoids stimulate and support your ECS and, thus, provide relief from a multitude of illness and conditions, resuming the body to its preferred state of balance.

Lee, Martin. A. (2012). Smoke Signals - A Social History of Marijuana Medical, Recreational and Scientific. New York, New York: Scribner.

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