What is the Endocannabinoid System
“The ECS is critical to human survival. At the most basic level, it controls how we eat, sleep, relax, forget, and protect ourselves.”- Vincenzo Di Marzo, Ph.D., Research Director of the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry of the National Research Council in Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy. Essentially, our body produces molecules that are similar to the ones found in the Cannabis plant, and these are referred to as endocannabinoids. Our understanding of this amazing system is still in its infancy and is growing every day. Research has shown that the ECS evolved over 500 million years ago and is present in all vertebrates such as fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals, except for insects. The ECS is widespread and responsible for maintaining homeostasis in our body. Homeostasis (Ho-me-o-sta-sis) is the tendency for our body to want to maintain a stable and balanced internal environment, versus the ever-changing external environment. This is a dynamic and always changing process due to the ever-changing processes not only within our body but impacting the body from the outside.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is one of the most complex and wide-reaching body systems we have and is referred to as the body’s “supercomputer.” Endo comes from the Latin word “within” and cannabinoid refers to molecules that are found in the Cannabis plant and bind to specific receptors.
To visualize this, we can use the example of the air conditioning and thermostat in your house. When you set your air at a certain temperature, if the temperature of your house goes beyond that range, the thermostat will sense that and tell the air conditioning to turn on to keep the temperature where you set it. This cycle continues all day, every day to keep your house at a comfortable temperature. It is a dynamic process in an ever-changing environment, just like your own body temperature or the changing levels of your hormones daily. The ECS is very complicated, and all of the potential functions and processes have yet to be discovered. We do know that it plays important roles in many different processes. The ECS acts as one of the main communicative mechanisms between our body and mind. The ECS works to keep the nervous system working properly and has been found to have effects on blood pressure variations, circadian rhythm, and heartbeat conduction.
There are two main receptors located within the ECS: CB1R and CB2R. Their numbers are the only representative of the order in which they were discovered. Each one is found in higher concentrations in different places throughout the body. CB1R is found primarily in the central nervous system (CNS) and CB2R is found in the immune cells and various other cells, such as the pancreas, reproductive organs, spleen, bone, muscle, and many other tissues. Activation of the CB1R receptor will produce psychoactivity, while the opposite is true of the CB2R. In CB2R there is no psychoactivity when this receptor is activated. The CB1R is found mostly in the brain and the immune cells that support healthy nerves: glial cells. These cells regulate the local environment that nerve cells live in and keep the nervous system healthy. The densest collection of receptors in the brain are Cannabinoid receptors, even more than opioid receptors. These receptors assist the brain and nervous system in managing mood, pain, memory, feeding, reproduction, and development. They are even responsible for maintaining healthy nerve cells. The CB1R is responsible for the psychological, memory, emotion, and pain effects of Cannabis/Hemp.
There are 2 distinct binding sites on the CB1R, one for CBD and one for THC, and when both are present there are different effects. When there are sufficient levels of CBD present around the receptor, it will make the binding of THC more difficult. Therefore, CBD can actually decrease the psychological side effects of THC!
The CB2R is primarily located on immune cells and various other organs, including but not limited to the spleen, reproductive organs, blood cells, bone, and muscle. These receptors help regulate inflammation in your body.These receptors bind both endocannabinoids that our body makes (2-AG and AEA) and have interactions with the cannabinoids produced by the Cannabis plant. This is why when Cannabis/Hemp is ingested it has both psychological and physical actions in our body. Without these receptors, these molecules would not produce any effects on our bodies. It is thought that the “Runner’s High” you get after working out is due to the ECS. It is important to note that the CB1R and CB2R receptors are NOT the only receptors that mediate the functions of the ECS and the CBD we take in from Cannabis/Hemp. There are a multitude of receptors that help give the effects of the ECS and they range from receptors on the skin to receptors that cause changes in gene expression. This system is quite complex and widespread and as time goes on, we learn even more about how complex it really is!