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Role of the Endocannabinoid System in Inflammation


Redness, swelling, heat, pain. These are all hallmark signs of inflammation. The inflammatory response in the body has been investigated for many years, but it is only until recently that the role of the endocannabinoid system in inflammation has proven to be so paramount.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the bodies response to injury. It is essential for defense against foreign invaders, wound healing, and repairing damaged tissues. Inflammation is actually a good thing. In the body, there are circulating mediators that bind to cells & tissues to destroy foreign invaders. But, if the process of inflammation continues long after a foreign invader is absent then the tissue of the affected area, showing inflammatory signs, will be damaged and in extreme cases the neighboring organs and organ systems can be affected. Although painful, inflammation serves a purpose. The swelling, redness, localized temperature increase, and hypersensitivity of the affected area serve a purpose. The body does not want a foreign invader to be comfortable, to be able to reproduce, to have space, the body wants any foreign invader to have a very uncomfortable time.

How does inflammation work?

The inflammatory response of the body goes hand-and-hand with the immune response of the body. For instance, when a foreign object pierces the skin, or any vector enters the body and is detected, the immediate bacteria that enter the body will provoke an immune response. If the skin was damaged in the process and skin cells died they will secrete chemokines, or chemical messenger molecules that will then alert mast cells. They mast cells are a special type of white blood cell that dedicate their life cycle to signaling a fire alarm type of response for any intruder in the body. Mast cells produce a fire alarm warning to the rest of the body using molecules called histamines. Why release histamines? Well, this chemical molecule really speeds up inflammation. It increases the permeability of the surrounding capillaries to white blood cells and some proteins, allowing them to engage any foreign or domestic enemy in the infected tissues.

What is the Role of the Endocannabinoid System in inflammation?

Studies have shown that as a result of tissue injury or inflammation to an area, the quantity of endocannabinoids in that area will markedly increase. Now, because cannabinoids have a retrograde inhibitory mechanism of action, scientists believe that upon an immune response or an inflammatory one, the role of the endocannabinoid system is to regulate and control the response so that it does not blow out of proportion. Remember, that prolonged and exacerbated inflammation can cause damage to neighboring organs and organ systems.

What is interesting is that the increase in local endocannabinoid supply were not only seen through in experimental studies but also seen in several human diseases such as neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, psychiatric, and gastrointestinal diseases.

Kathleen L. McCoy published an article, in 2016, in the U.S. National Library of Medicine titled Interaction Between Cannabinoid System and Toll-like Receptors controls Inflammation. In her paper, she found that cannabinoids suppress toll-like receptor mediated inflammatory response only when immune cells were activated. Meaning that the role of the endocannabinoid system in inflammation is regulatory but not one-sided as some believed. Toll-like receptors are a type of receptor expressed on the surface of immune cells and cannabinoids control inflammation by suppressing these receptors on the surface of these immune cells.

Therefore, the role of the endocannabinoid system in inflammation is a direct one that is a two-sided street because for cannabinoids to be able to control inflammation, immune cells must be activated in the area. In the words of Kathleen, “Hence, innate immune cells may play a role in regulating endocannabinoid homeostasis, and, in turn, the endocannabinoid system modulates local inflammatory responses”.

Can endocannabinoid deficiency affect inflammation?

If the body of an individual were incapable of secreting an ample demand of cannabinoids to control an inflammatory response then the damage could be extensive. As previously mentioned, the body uses cannabinoids to control the response to foreign invaders, viruses, and ultimately heal itself and repair wounds. But, if the normal process is thrown off balance due to an endocannabinoid deficiency then illness could arise.