By Dario Sabaghi
Looking for a 101 guide to the endocannabinoid system that is easy to digest? Good news: This article is just for you.
Maybe the topic was broached at a dispensary, or in a smoke sesh behind your workplace. Or, maybe you’ve never even tried the sticky icky, but you heard about it’s amazing power to interact with our bodies’ systems on TV or on a TikTok video. Whatever the source, we’re going to fill in the blanks for you.
The fact is that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) has been gaining attention in the past few years. While the ECS wasn’t unknown in the cannabis community, Google search trends show a surge in interest since 2018.
This is likely due to two reasons. First, more and more U.S. states have legalized both adult-use and medical marijuana in the last few years, leading people to understand how they could use it to help treat their health conditions, which likely led them to facts about the ECS. Second, since the legalization of hemp through the Farm Bill of 2018, CBD products have spread across the country like wildfire, and understanding how the compound works has unexpectedly led us to understand more about how our bodies work.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is an intricate network within the body, playing pivotal roles in regulating functions such as memory, emotions, sleep, temperature, pain, inflammation, immunity, and appetite.
At the heart of this system are two primary receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are predominantly found in the brain and are responsible for modulating various neurotransmitters. They influence key bodily processes like hunger, body temperature, and mental alertness. The activation of these receptors can produce psychoactive effects.
On the other hand, CB2 receptors are largely situated in immune tissues. They play a vital role in controlling immune responses and managing inflammation and pain, especially in ailments such as inflammatory bowel disease. Notably, activating CB2 receptors doesn’t lead to the psychoactive effects associated with CB1 receptor activation, making them an appealing focus for pharmaceutical research.
To activate these receptors, our body produces endocannabinoids, which as the name suggests, are structurally similar to cannabis compounds.
The discovery of the ECS is relatively recent. In 1992, several researchers, including Raphael Mechoulam, who isolated THC in the 1960s, discovered a new neurotransmitter initially called “endogenous cannabinoid” or “endocannabinoid” for short, which binds to the same brain receptors as THC. They named it “Anandamide” (AEA). In the 1990s, Mechoulam’s group, alongside Japanese researchers, identified another crucial endocannabinoid, “2-arachidonylglycerol” (2-AG), which binds not only to CB1 receptors in the brain but also to CB2 receptors.
These discoveries spurred extensive research and the formation of the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) in the 1990s.
The discovery of the ECS brings extraordinary implications for almost every area of medical science.
The ECS, woven into the fabric of our bodies, can be likened to a vast web. Just as each strand in a web contributes to its overall strength and stability, the ECS’s complex network ensures our internal equilibrium. This intricate system is not exclusive to humans; it is integral to animals too. No, those CBD dog treats aren’t just a gimmick—but don’t go giving them full THC edibles. Dogs have a higher concentration of CB1 receptors in their brains, which makes them vastly more sensitive to THC than humans. So remember, unless your dog spells his name “D-O-Double-G,” you should steer him clear of the THC. (Or her.)
Cannabinoids, like THC, promote homeostasis1 at all biological levels, from cells to organs and organisms.
Understanding the ECS and its components offers insights into treating various pathological conditions by restoring normal cannabinoid balance. Let’s go a bit deeper.
THC is the main psychoactive compound responsible for marijuana’s effects. It interacts with ECS by binding to CB1 and CB2 receptors, leading to physiological and psychological effects, including pain relief and appetite stimulation.
And what about CBD?
Cannabidiol (CBD), the second major cannabinoid in the cannabis plant, doesn’t produce the typical ‘high’ of THC. While the precise interaction with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) remains uncertain, studies confirm that CBD doesn’t directly bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors like THC.
Some experts believe it blocks endocannabinoid breakdown or binds to an unidentified receptors. Research suggests CBD can alleviate pain, inflammation, nausea, and various symptoms.
CBD enhances the ECS by extending natural cannabinoid activity, regulating and weakening signals triggered by THC or natural cannabinoids, and indirectly influencing CB2 receptor activity, potentially benefiting metabolic issues, obesity, liver problems, and promoting overall health.
Another way CBD is believed to interact with our bodies is it’s interaction with specific enzymes, particularly fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down these endocannabinoids after they’ve fulfilled their roles in the ECS.
CBD has been observed to inhibit FAAH, and by doing so, can potentially increase the levels of endocannabinoids like anandamide in the body. Anandamide is sometimes referred to as the “bliss molecule” as it plays a very positive role in mood regulation, among other functions. By slowing down its breakdown, CBD might prolong its effects.
As we have learned how THC and CBD influence the ECS, it now becomes clearer why medical cannabis can help treat various health conditions.
Chronic pain is one of the most prevalent reasons for using medical marijuana. Patients dealing with painful health conditions, such as neuropathic pain, HIV-related pain, cancer, muscle and joint ailments, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis (MS), have reported signifcant pain relief through the use of medical marijuana.
Moreover, by engaging with cannabinoid receptors on brain cells, THC and CBD may improve short-term sleep quality in individuals with insomnia linked to pain, fibromyalgia, MS, and anxiety.
Research is increasingly exploring the potential of marijuana in treating conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. While anecdotal evidence is compelling, current scientific data from small studies presents varied outcomes.
Medical marijuana has been effective in managing side effects of cancer treatments, including nausea, appetite loss, and weight loss. It also offers promising relief for muscle spasms related to multiple sclerosis, making it a preferred choice for many MS patients.
Moreover, the potential benefits of marijuana are being examined for conditions such as migraines, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, Crohn’s disease, and glaucoma.
The recent relaxation in prohibition policies, spurred by the legalization of both recreational and medical marijuana, has broadened the scope of marijuana research. Consequently, our grasp of the ECS’s function has deepened.
However, it’s crucial to note that medical marijuana doesn’t guarantee positive outcomes for all these conditions. Continued research is imperative to better understand how medical marijuana interacts with the ECS and to optimize its therapeutic potential.
The journey of uncovering the secrets of the ECS and the myriad potential applications of cannabinoids in medicine has only just begun. As we continue to unearth and appreciate the vast complexities of this intricate system, the possibilities seem boundless. With each new discovery, we come closer to harnessing the full medicinal potential of the cannabis plant, promising a future rich in innovative treatments and solutions for a multitude of ailments.
1Homeostasis is the process by which organisms maintain a stable internal environment, regardless of external changes. It involves physiological mechanisms that adjust to keep factors like temperature and pH within specific ranges.