Understanding The Endocannabinoid System
Did you know there is an entire system in the human body named after cannabinoids that were first identified in plants? Cannabinoids have been increasingly at the center of discussions of modern science due to their therapeutic benefits. The hemp plant contains more than of these 80 chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. You may have heard of the two most popular cannabinoids, THC and CBD. Due to the research into understanding CBD and THC, scientists discovered a biochemical system in our bodies known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
An Overview Of The Endocannabinoid System
Let’s start with the term endocannabinoid. What do you get when you combine ‘endogenous’ (defined: inside the body) and ‘cannabinoid’? You get endocannabinoid¹ – a natural chemical produced in the body, which is similar to the chemicals found in plants. The endocannabinoid system got its name from the plant-based cannabinoids (Phytocannabinoids) which were discovered before the body’s naturally produced endocannabinoids.
“The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex network of lipids comprising the endogenous ligands, their cannabinoid receptors, and the enzymes catalyzing the formation and degradation of endocannabinoids” – Vitamins and Hormones²
The definition of the endocannabinoid system sounds advanced and filled with scientific jargon. But, don’t worry, we will break it down and explain the simple science, benefits, and history of the ECS as we go through this article.
Internal & External Cannabinoid Production
Where do these endocannabinoids come from? The body synthesizes them on demand. The body uses omega fatty acids, as the main building blocks to produce many cannabinoids for the body.
On the other hand, phytocannabinoids such as CBD, are derived from the hemp plant and then consumed by humans. Due to a similar chemical make-up, external cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid systems. These phytocannabinoids are also beneficial to people whose bodies cannot produce enough endocannabinoids.
How The Endocannabinoid System Works
Essentially, the endocannabinoid system works by responding to cannabinoids within the human body. The ECS is made up of 3 parts³ that work in harmony:
- The cannabinoids
- Receptors (CB1 and CB2) that react to the cannabinoids
- Enzymes to breakdown the cannabinoids
It’s the interaction of these three components that are responsible for the documented therapeutic properties of cannabinoids. But how do these chemicals interact with the human body to bring about these health and wellness benefits?
Numerous researchers, including a study⁴ published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, agree that external cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) can manipulate the ECS and help ease the symptoms of a variety of health issues. These receptors are located throughout the entire body including in the immune system, brain, heart, organs, glands, and other body systems.
Typically, the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) act as a lock, and the cannabinoids act as a key. Unlike most cannabinoids, CBD regulates the function of the receptors³ rather than binding directly (see figure 1 below). This process regulates the other endocannabinoids that are outside of the cells and circulating through the body. CBD also stimulates the ECS to promote homeostasis⁵ (a crucial body process as shown in the next section), to control inflammation, body temperature, anxiety, and pain perception.
The Endocannabinoid System Is Crucial For Homeostasis
To help understand homeostasis, consider the philosophy of yin and yang – the importance of balance. Like this philosophy, your body continuously works to maintain a balanced state. The growling in your stomach, the sweat dripping on a hot, sunny afternoon – these are all efforts by your body to maintain homeostasis or our body’s ‘normal state’. When your body is functioning outside the normal (healthy) range, the endocannabinoid system kicks in to help balance⁶ things back to the right levels. But maintaining balance is not the only benefits of the endocannabinoid system. Research is beginning to understand⁷ the other wellness implications of this system.
Benefits & Effects Of The Endocannabinoid System
According to a recent study⁸ by Colorado State University and Nova Southeastern University, the endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in our survival. This study further divided the ECS into 3 dimensions in order to describe its unique nature and benefits.
- It’s a master regulator: the system maintains the homeostasis⁹ of the human body. It even controls social interaction and behavioral reactivity.
- A wide scope of influence: Cannabinoid receptors¹⁰ are located virtually everywhere throughout the cells of the human body, from neurons to immune cells.
- Fast acting: Cannabinoids do not stay in the body for long (rapidly synthesized and degraded). This trait makes them an effective alternative to many pharmaceuticals¹¹ such as benzodiazepines or opioids.
Other benefits of the endocannabinoid system include:
- Stress: Studies⁵ show that the endocannabinoid system “plays a vital regulatory role in the secretion of hormones related to the stress response.”
- Eating Disorders: The ECS also affects the food intake centers of the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. This potentially could help manage the symptoms of conditions, such as obesity¹³.
- Cardiovascular disorders: Studies¹⁴ show levels of endocannabinoids and CB1 receptors are elevated in patients experiencing liver cirrhosis, septic or hemorrhagic shock. This hints at the systems’ potential to regulate other bodily functions.
Advancements In Scientific Research
Important milestones in the discovery of the endocannabinoid system include the pharmacological description of the first cannabinoid receptor in 1988¹⁵. These receptors were found in regions of the brain responsible for physiological and mental processes. In 1993, scientists discovered a second receptor in peripheral tissues and the immune system. Later on, in 1995¹⁶, a remarkable discovery was made when these receptors were found within humans as well as rats. This early research paved the way for the next few decades of interest in the endocannabinoid system.
The next step for researchers and scientists is to continue investigations into the different roles of the endocannabinoid system and to develop appropriate strategies to leverage this information to build new solutions that can be tested for specific conditions.