What is the Endocannabinoid System? Back in the 80’s and 90’s, scientists who were investigating the properties of THC discovered a biological system in our body. They named the endocannabinoid system. The ECS was initially discovered by scientists Allyn Howlett and William Devane. This system is known for regulating a wide range of body functions, including your mood, movement, how you process food and many other body activities. The ECS is also the reason why we experience recreational and medicinal effects from cannabis; without it, there would be nothing in our body to receive and interpret the effects of cannabinoids.
It turns out that the body produces its own “endocannabinoids” as coined by scientists. Two of the main endocannabinoids that they’ve managed to identify and isolate are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylyglyerol (2-AG); which are produced when body needs them. In fact, most animals in the animal kingdom have an endocannabinoid system.
How does the Endocannabinoid System work?
The ECS (endocannabinoid system) has three main parts to it: receptors, endocannabinoids and enzymes; all of which interact in order to adjust and regulate various bodily processes. What happens is that endocannabinoids bind to the cannabinoid receptors, known as CB1 and CB2 receptors; then enzymes break them down once they’re finished.
CB1 receptors are the most common and can be mostly found in your central nervous system, including the brain, lungs, reproductive organs etc. They have a higher presence in various areas of the brain. CB2 receptors are often found in the peripheral nervous system, mostly immune cells. Highly present in the bones, skin and glial cells of the brain. Both types of receptors can be found in the immune system, liver, pancreas, bone marrow and the brainstem.
What does the Endocannabinoid System do?
The ECS has a wide range of functions, some of which we haven’t even been able to fully understand yet. Essentially, scientists know that it is there to regulate your certain aspect of your body. If one of the many functions of the ECS is interrupted or damaged, the ECS kicks in so that your body doesn’t feel the direct results; allowing your body to keep functioning in the right way. This is a concept known as homeostasis; which is essentially the body’s capacity to regulate its internal functions in order to adapt and compensate for external stimuli.
Some of the functions and processes linked to the ECS are:
- The digestive system and metabolism
- Reproductive system
- Muscle formation
- Bone growth
- Nerve function
How does Cannabis Influence the ECS?
The cannabinoids from marijuana flowers interact with the human endocannabinoid system just like the natural endocannabinoids that we produce. To date, there are at least 113 cannabinoids that scientists have been able to identify in labs. Each and every one of them has the capacity to interact with the ECS in different ways. However, the two most frequent cannabinoids that interact with the ECS system are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).
THC in the Endocannabinoid System
THC is the cannabinoid that everyone knows gets you “stoned” – it’s the psychoactive compound that most recreational consumers are after when consuming cannabis. However, it also has a myriad of medicinal effects.
Just like normal endocannabinoids, THC also binds to your CB receptors; in fact it has the capacity of binding to both types of receptors, CB1 and CB2, although it has a much high affinity for binding to CB1 receptors. As we were saying before, CB1 receptors are mainly in the brain, although they have more recently been discovered to work in areas such as reproductive organs and the lungs.
This is why THC is capable of producing such mood-altering effects including paranoia and anxiety, as well as reducing pain; THC binding to CB1 receptors also explains why smoking potent cannabis increases your appetite, and in some cases has been shown in certain studies to help regulate the metabolic system. It’s known that when THC binds with CB-1 receptors, activity in the circuits that control pain in our nervous system is actually suppressed, which reduces pain – the same thing happens with other symptoms such as nausea, muscle twitches and seizures.
CBD in the Endocannabinoid System
Among the many of cannabinoids found in cannabis flowers and plants, CBD is the most abundant cannabinoid proven to have purely medicinal effects unlike THC, which produces both medicinal effects and is also known for its potent psychoactive effect, which is not always the best if you’re looking for something medicinal that doesn’t alter your state of mind.
Until recent discoveries, it was thought that CBD couldn’t bind to CB1 receptors, when in reality it just binds to CB1 in a different way compared to THC. THC interacts with the receptor by directly influencing processes, while CBD affects the way that THC and other endocannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system and its receptors. Scientists believe that CBD is a substance that can help to treat illnesses related to natural endocannabinoid deficiencies such as migraines, IBS and fibromyalgia, among others. Although CBD and THC may have specific functions, they actually take part in the “entourage effect” which means that most of the functions and effects that they produce actually take place because they’re working together rather than separately.