The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a biological system that plays an important role in regulating various processes and functions within the human body, including mood, sleep, appetite, memory, and reproduction and fertility. The ECS is active in all of our bodies, even if we don’t consume cannabis or CBD products, and it has been called ‘the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.’ Read on to find out more about the ECS and how it works.
How Was the Endocannabinoid System Discovered?
In 1988, a study funded by the US government at St. Louis University School of Medicine found that the mammalian brain has receptor sites that respond to compounds found in cannabis. The scientists were trying to understand how THC, the substance in marijuana that makes people feel ‘high’, affected the body. What they discovered was an extensive network of cannabinoid receptors (CBr) in cells of both the peripheral and the central nervous system.
The cannabinoid receptors sit on the surface of our cells and monitor what is happening in the body outside the cell. They transmit information about these changes to the inside of the cell, prompting the appropriate cellular response. The two major cannabinoid receptors are called CB-1 and CB-2. Though there are more, these are the first two that were discovered and remain the most thoroughly studied.
The discovery of these receptors posed a puzzling question: why would the body need to produce them if there were no naturally occurring cannabinoids that would bind with them? Further research discovered that the human body produces its own cannabinoid-like chemicals that interact with the receptors. The first to be identified was Anandamide, a fatty acid neurotransmitter which plays a role in the regulation of appetite and the neural generation of pleasure and motivation, and acts as a natural antidepressant within the body.
The third part of the ECS to be discovered were the metabolic enzymes that break down the endocannabinoids after they have been used. The enzymes ensure that the endocannabinoids are used when they’re needed but not for longer than is necessary for whichever process they are part of to take place.
What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?
To understand the ECS, we first need to understand homeostasis. Homeostasis is the process of your body trying to keep everything in the right zone. It attempts to keep everything happening inside your body at a stable, optimal level, no matter what is going on around you on the outside. Your body works constantly to monitor the important functions and levels within it: are your hormonal levels correct? Is your temperature too high or too low? Do you need food? Do you need sleep?
When something is out of kilter within your body, the ECS kicks in to correct the problem. So if you’re too cold, you’ll start to shiver to warm your body. If you’re too hot, you’ll start to sweat to cool down. If your stomach rumbles, you know you need to eat. Homeostasis is also called the ‘Goldilocks zone’ - because everything is ‘just right’. The ECS works very precisely to maintain homeostasis and only impacts what it needs to. So, for example, if you have a problem with your digestive system, it will be activated only to regulate that issue, without affecting your immune system or reproductive hormones.
Homeostasis is essential to human health, and the ECS is an essential part of our wellbeing. Scientific studies have shown changes in ECS activity in relation to a number of different diseases, including cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and rheumatoid arthritis. Due to the effect of cannabis products on the ECS, they have rapidly become an obvious and important target for potential treatments, and lots of research is going on to find out the extent of the health benefits they may have.
As scientists have done more research in the ECS, they have discovered several conditions that could be related to a lack of naturally produced endocannabinoids, called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). Evidence has been found that conditions for which CECD may play a part include irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and fibromyalgia. Studies are ongoing to find out how CBD products and medical marijuana may be able to correct CECD. However, cannabinoids are being researched as potential treatments for plenty of other conditions too, not just those related to CECD, including Alzheimer’s Disease, psychiatric illnesses, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain conditions and kidney diseases, to name but a few.
How Does the Endocannabinoid System React to THC?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the main naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis. This is the compound that creates the feeling of being ‘high’, and leads to the feelings commonly associated with cannabis use such as feeling relaxed, happy, giggly or hungry. Just like endocannabinoids, as described above, THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system by binding to CB1 and CB2 receptors. Because it can bind to both kinds of receptors it has a powerful and varied range of effects. Some of these effects are desirable and pleasant feelings, such as reducing pain and feeling high. However, not all of the feelings produced by THC are good ones. THC can bind to receptors in the part of your brain called the amygdala, which helps to regulate anxiety, stress, fear and other related emotions. An excess of cannabinoids may overstimulate the amygdala, prompting feelings of worry and paranoia.
How Does it React to CBD?
The other major compound found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD). This is what is used to create CBD products you can legally buy, such as oil or gummies. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t have any properties that produce a high and doesn’t usually cause any negative effects. Though experts have not found out exactly how CBD interacts with the ECS, they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors the same way that THC does. Instead, it is thought that CBD inhibits endocannabinoids, such as anandamide, being broken down. This leads to a higher concentration of the endocannabinoid in the system, which in terms leads to increased feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Some scientists also posit a theory that CBD does bind to a receptor, but that receptor hasn’t yet been discovered. Either way, CBD has been proved to offer health benefits of cannabis without the psychoactive effects of THC that are often associated with it.
The endocannabinoid system is crucial for helping the body maintain homeostasis (the ‘Goldilocks zone’) and regulate processes and functions such as mood, sleep, memory, pain sensation and appetite. If cells deviate from the Goldilocks Zone, the endocannabinoid system kicks in the bring the body back into homeostasis. The endocannabinoid system can also be affected by external compounds that are found in cannabis, namely THC and CBD. CBD is especially effective in aiding the ECS by stopping the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoids being broken down, therefore increasing their longevity within the body and thus their benefits. CBD products offer the benefits of naturally occurring compounds within cannabis, without the psychoactive effects of THC. Though there is still some way to go in finding out exactly how CBD interacts with the ECS, it’s already clear that it offers huge benefits for our health and wellbeing.