Endocannabinoid System Science Scientific Terms

What Is The Endocannabinoid System, Part 1: Introduction

What is a cannabinoid?

A cannabinoid is one of more than 110 chemicals produced by the leaves and flowers of cannabis plants (THC, which produces the high of marijuana, is a cannabinoid).  Because these chemicals have an effect on the human body, scientists realized that there must be a system in our bodies that produces and responds to its own cannabinoids, called endogenous cannabinoids.  It was later discovered that anandamide is the primary endogenous cannabinoid in humans.

What is an endocannabinoid?

The word endogenous has two parts; endo means “inside” and genous means “born”.  The word endocannabinoid is a combination of endogenous and cannabinoid, and means “cannabinoid from inside”.  Accordingly, cannabinoids from Cannabis can be called exocannabinoids, meaning “cannabinoids from outside”.

Anandamide, the primary human endocannabinoid, is understood to serve a function in the regulation of appetite and sleep, and is also known to be the neurotransmitter that floods the brain when one experiences a runner’s high.  Some scientists argue that anandamide is also involved in our perception of positive emotional responses like laughter and humor.

There are a few other endocannabinoids as well, like 2-arachidonoylglycerol, whose role in the body is even more complex than it’s spelling.  There may be other endocannabinoids that haven’t been discovered yet. Their activity in the body is subtle and enhances another function rather than serving that function by itself, so they can be hard to find.  What we do know is that their role is vital to our health, and cannabinoids from nature can improve the functioning of our body’s own endocannabinoids.

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

The endocannabinoid system is the network of enzymes and receptors in the body that produce and respond to endocannabinoids like anandamide.  It also reacts with exocannabinoids like THC and CBD.  There are two kinds of cannabinoid receptors in the body: CB1 and CB2.  The primary difference between the two receptor types is their location, but they both perform similar functions.

CB1 receptors are located for the most part in the CNS,  while some are found in the pancreas and liver.  THC is the most notable agonist of CB1 receptors and thus these are the receptors responsible for producing the high.  Astoundingly, CB1 receptors are the most numerous receptors in the brain, which is believed to be why there are so many different functions of the ECS.

CB2 receptors are located overwhelmingly in the immune system, but are found in the stomach, liver, spinal cord, heart tissue, and several other organ systems as well.  Many of the therapeutic effects of cannabis are mediated through interaction with the CB2 receptor, including its role in fortifying the immune system.

Why do we have an ECS?

The basic purpose of the ECS is to regulate production and breakdown of excitatory signals which stimulate cells to “go” and perform their function, and inhibitory signals, which tell cells to “stop” and rest. In individual cells, cannabinoids have a positive or a negative effect on CB1 and 2 receptors. Because of this versatility, the ECS is heavily involved in the balance of stop and go signals throughout the body, which is called homeostasis.  Homeostasis is controlled by circadian rhythms, which maintain the daily schedule of your body and mind.  If the circadian rhythm is the body’s natural clock, then the ECS is the gearing that sets the clock and keeps it moving at the right pace.

In addition to its activity in the ECS, studies have proven that cannabinoids affect blood pressure, pain relief, inflammation, and digestive activity in mice that do not posses any CB1 or CB2 receptors.  This suggests that there is widespread affinity for cannabinoids in the human body outside of the regular cannabinoid system, specifically within the adaptive immune system.

Keep Reading | Endocannabinoid System: Part 2