What is the Endocannabinoid System?
May 7, 2019
When it comes to understanding CBD oil and its purpose, it is important to have some knowledge of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). We all know that cannabis and its active compounds, called cannabinoids, have an effect on our bodies. But what allows them to have this effect, and how does it all work?
As it turns out, it’s all down to the ECS. In this article, let’s look at the endocannabinoid system and all it can do. First, though, it’s important to understand the concept of homeostasis.
What is homeostasis?
Homeostasis refers to the regulation of conditions in the body such as body temperature, blood sugar level, water content, and more. In order for the body to function properly, we need to remain within certain parameters that stop us getting sick and help us to be the amazing beings that we are.
You can think of it like Goldilocks and the three bears: Everything in our body needs to be not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
We maintain homeostasis by using negative feedback mechanisms. This means that everything in our bodies is monitored carefully so that, when something changes, we can correct it. This is where the endocannabinoid system comes in.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system is a network of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors that exist throughout our bodies. It is thought to exist in pretty much all animals on earth, and it is absolutely crucial to our survival.
The cannabinoid receptors exist on the surface of cells and “listen” to what's going on in the body. They communicate this information about our bodies’ status and changing circumstances to the inside of the cell, allowing for the appropriate measures to be taken. In other words, they allow for us to maintain homeostasis by monitoring what is going on in our bodies.
Scientists have identified two primary cannabinoid receptors, called the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Although both types of receptors can be found all throughout the body, CB1 receptors are more highly concentrated in the brain and central nervous system, whereas CB2 receptors can be found more abundantly in the immune system, organs, and tissues.
Most of us have by now heard of the cannabinoids found in plants, called phytocannabinoids, but the body also produces its own, which are referred to as endocannabinoids. These molecules are created whenever we need them, usually in response to some change in the body. They can bind directly with the cannabinoid receptors – you can think of them as slotting into one another like a jigsaw puzzle or a lock and key.
To date, scientists have identified two major endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-AG. Endocannabinoids are made from fat-like molecules within cell membranes.
Once the endocannabinoids have fulfilled their usage, metabolic enzymes are able to break them down again. FAAH breaks down anandamide, while MAGL breaks down 2-AG. This ensures that the endocannabinoids are not used for longer than necessary. This process is what separates endocannabinoids from other molecular signals like hormones or neurotransmitters, which can be stored in the body.
How was the endocannabinoid system discovered?
The ECS is not often talked about in schools and even less heard of in wider circles. Everyone has heard of the respiratory system and the cardiovascular system, but the endocannabinoid system is not as famous. One of the reasons for this is that it was not discovered until fairly recently and it remains relatively understudied.
In 1964, an Israeli scientist named Dr. Raphael Mechoulam was able to identify and isolate THC for the first time. Once cannabinoids could be isolated, it paved the way for research into why cannabis has the impact it does on the human body.
In 1988, Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered the first cannabinoid receptor in the brain of a rat. They began to map the CB receptors in the brain and found that there were more of these receptors than any other neurotransmitter receptor. The endocannabinoid system had been discovered.
That is why it has this name – it was essentially named after the cannabis plant which helped to lead to its discovery.
What is the ECS’ role in the body?
As we have talked about, the ECS plays a vital role in maintaining homeostasis. But what exactly does this mean? Well, the ECS really does have a huge role in keeping us healthy, so much so that we wouldn’t be able to cover everything in just one article.
It is thought that having a deficiency of endocannabinoids could cause a huge range of complications in the body. If we don’t have enough endocannabinoids, we can’t fix certain problems that arise. This relates to both mental and physical complications.
Anything you can think of that homeostasis helps to regulate, the ECS will be involved in. As you can see, this makes it an incredibly crucial system.
How do cannabinoids interact with the ECS?
With all this information on the endocannabinoid system, it’s logical to jump straight to wondering how plant cannabinoids interact with our ECS. Of course, with over 100 cannabinoids naturally occurring in the cannabis plant, each one can interact with our ECS in different ways. THC and CBD are the most well-known and most well-studied, though, having garnered the most public interest.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the most infamous active compound in cannabis, and it has the ability to interact directly with our endocannabinoid system. When marijuana is consumed, the THC can bind directly with our cannabinoid receptors, in the same way as our endocannabinoids do. THC seems to have a preference for our CB1 receptors, found in the brain, which is why THC can cause psychoactive, intoxicating effects and produce the famous ‘high’.
But what about CBD? Cannabidiol is slightly different; instead of binding directly with our cannabinoid receptors, it has an indirect influence on the ECS. It can help us to produce more endocannabinoids naturally, which in turn leads to a better functioning of the ECS and a healthier body. This is why CBD is being investigated for its potential.
Basically, when you take CBD oil or another CBD product, you are absorbing CBD into your bloodstream and allowing it to interact with the ECS. If your endocannabinoid system is struggling to keep up with homeostasis, CBD can maybe give it that much-needed boost.
Final thoughts on the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is a very important system in the human body. It is not only crucial to our survival, but it is also fundamental in understanding what impact taking CBD could have on our bodies.
As you can see, the existence of the ECS is very encouraging for the CBD industry, as it shows why CBD can have such a positive impact on people.
If you have ever heard of the endocannabinoid system and felt a little lost, we hope that this article has served to explain everything you need to know about the ECS and its functions.