An Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System

Did you know that cannabinoids are not just found inside the cannabis plant but have also been discovered within the bodies of most vertebrate animal species, including humans?  Whether one uses cannabis or not, our bodies have evolved to depend on the presence of endogenous cannabinoids (i.e. cannabinoids created inside the body). Referred to as the endocannabinoid system—or ECS—this complex signaling system appears to do a lot: from regulating a variety of important health functions to stabilizing the body's internal environment in response to both internal or external injury.  Researchers are beginning to understand more about this fascinating discovery, the role it plays in human health, and how it may lead to improved treatment options in the future.  

The ECS is comprised of endogenous cannabinoids and their associated cannabinoid receptors.  The two main endocannabinoids are known as anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol; the two main receptors are CB1 and CB2.  To understand how the ECS works without taking a course in neuroscience, just know that in general every individual chemical—whether produced naturally inside the body or introduced to the body from outside—exerts its effects by attaching to very specific places in the brain and body called receptors.  Now consider the “lock and key” analogy: the “lock” is the receptor and the “key” is the chemical molecule that only works if it can find the correct lock to interact with.  When a lock and key match, a series of electrochemical micro-events is triggered that has the potential to create a change of state within the brain or body.

Since these endocannabinoid locks and keys are found all throughout the body, it's no surprise that the ECS is involved in many different areas of human physiology, including (but not limited to): mood, sleep, hunger, pain, inflammation, immune function, metabolism, central nervous system development, memory, neuroplasticity, sensory response, and even fertility.  This would indicate that cannabinoids play a broad role in supporting human health—and, by extension, as potential treatments for a wide variety of medical conditions. 

While a properly-functioning ECS attempts to maintain internal homeostasis, it's believed that a malfunctioning ECS may contribute to health problems as a result of the destabilization of the system.  Research suggests that an underlying endocannabinoid deficiency may be involved in illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, Huntington's disease, uncompensated anorexia, migraines, IBS, and fibromyalgia—and possibly others.  It also appears that chronic stress and alcohol consumption, for example, can diminish the ECS' functionality while moderate exercise and antidepressants may temporarily increase its responsiveness.  Such examples serve to further demonstrate that the ECS clearly responds to what's happening around it.

So, how can we directly influence the ECS?  Well, the main way would be through the use of cannabinoids.  Besides the endocannabinoids already inside us, both the phytocannabinoids found inside the cannabis plant as well as the synthetic cannabinoids produced in labs are capable of directly interacting with the ECS.  This is possible because these external cannabinoids so closely resemble the ones inside our bodies, that the locks and keys actually fit each other (otherwise, cannabis would have zero effect when ingested).  While THC may certainly be the most potent cannabinoid, CBD has been soaring in popularity for its medicinal value, tolerability, and general health benefits.

Interestingly, CBD is thought to influence the ECS in a slightly different manner than THC.  Rather than binding to the CB1/CB2 receptors in the brain and body like THC does, CBD is believed to exert its therapeutic influence by preventing the metabolic breakdown of endocannabinoids, thus allowing those already-existing compounds to remain effective for longer.  Or, it may be the case that CBD binds to receptors we have not yet discovered.  Either way, CBD remains a non-psychoactive cannabinoid capable of interacting with the ECS that has demonstrated usefulness in treating or helping with a wide variety of health conditions—a great starting point for influencing your own ECS. 

In the coming years, we should expect to learn more about the importance of the ECS in human health.  As scientists unravel more about the detailed workings of the endocannabinoid system, we will gain a better understanding of the relationship between cannabinoids and our well being across a variety of important factors.  Furthermore, by piecing together how the hundred or so different cannabinoids specifically interact with the human ECS, we're likely to also discover new cannabinoid-based treatment options that will target relevant medical conditions with greater efficacy.