The Endocannabinoid System, made up of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids, is responsible for maintaining homeostasis within our bodies.
By Alexandra Gomes — August 26, 2020
You’ve probably heard of the central nervous system and immune system — two large components of the human body that work together to keep us generally healthy and functional. Maybe you learned about them and their key functions in health class or at your doctor’s office, along with some tips on how to regulate or boost these systems.
There is, however, another vital system within our bodies that you probably haven’t heard much about: the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS is an intricate cell-signaling system made up of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids, which are naturally-occurring molecules produced within the human body that bind to cannabinoid receptors. The main function of ECS is to maintain homeostasis, or internal biological harmony in response to changes in the external environment..
So how does the ECS interact with phytocannabinoids when we consume cannabis products? Let’s delve into it.
Endocannabinoids vs. Phytocannabinoids
As mentioned earlier, endocannabinoids are naturally occurring cannabinoids in the human body. There are two endocannabinoids that researchers have focused on — 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) and arachidonoyl ethanolamide (anandamide).
Anandamide is also known as the “bliss molecule.” Studies show that high levels of this particular cannabinoid correlates to better moods and fear reduction.
Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant, and interact with cannabinoid receptors in a similar way to endocannabinoids. The two most well-known phytocannabinoids are THC and CBD, however there are thought to be hundreds more with their own host of potential medicinal benefits.
There are two main types of cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body on the surface of our cells — CB1 and CB2. When these receptors receive information about changing conditions in the environment, they signal their corresponding cell to respond in a certain way. So when endocannabinoids or phytocannabinoids bind to these receptors, they send a certain kind of message to the cells on how they should behave.
A good example is THC, the psychoactive phytocannabinoid found in cannabis. When it interacts with the CB1 receptors located in the brain, it produces that high that cannabis is so well-known for.
CB1 is generally found in the brain and is also prominent in the rest of the central nervous system, while CB2 is found primarily in the immune system.
Regulation of Symptoms
ECS was first discovered by scientists researching cannabinoids, trying to discern how and why cannabinoids affected humans in positive and negative ways. They found that stimulating or inhibiting the ECS has the potential to regulate many aspects of neuronal and behavioral/physiological activity.
Specifically, researchers have found the system can regulate symptoms from a variety of disorders, from PTSD to cancer to traumatic head injury. Many studies have shown that cannabinoids have a whole range of potential medicinal properties. You can check those out for yourself here.
It’s important to keep in mind that it is possible to overstimulate those receptors. Daily use of cannabis has been linked to a decrease in cannabinoid receptors, which is why many long-time daily users feel the need to take a tolerance break.
Many clinicians and scientists familiar with cannabis believe the plant will be a powerful tool in manipulating the ECS to improve health and prevent disease. While much more research on the topic is needed, the potential is impossible to deny and exciting to explore. One day, the ECS may become just as valued in our healthcare traditions as its counterparts, the immune system and central nervous system.