Our mental and physical health rely on a number of complex systems in order to achieve balance. Most of these systems span our entire body. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is one of the most important systems in many living organisms, from plants to humans.
Whenever there is imbalance in our body, the endocannabinoid system’s job is to relay this information to the brain, then relay instructions to our tissues and organs telling them how to restore balance. Before we get into the details it’s important that we understand the concept of “homeostasis”.
Homeostasis, comes from Greek for “remaining the same.” The term is commonly used in medicine to refer to a set of processes by which a living organism maintains a steady internal chemical and physical environment.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The Endocannabinoid system (ECS) is made of a group of neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids, that bind to cannabinoid receptors located all over the central and peripheral nervous system. Once activated, cannabinoid receptors causing changes in electrical impulses fired by nerve cells.
People have been using cannabis for thousands of years. It is only in the early 1940s that scientists were able to isolate the first cannabinoids from marijuana. In the 60s scientists identified the first cannabinoid receptor in our brain. We were then able to explain the “high” associated with marijuana intake as an interaction between cannabinoids from the plant and the receptors in our brain. However, it would be extremely reductive and false to say that this is the main function of these cannabinoid receptors.
In the early 90s scientists discovered the first naturally occurring cannabinoids and dubbed them “endo-cannabinoids”. We have receptors for these plant cannabinoids and they are able to influence us because our bodies naturally produce similar chemicals (endocannabinoids) that interact with these receptors to tip one side of the equation and restore balance. When we consume THC, we activate cannabinoid receptors and deliberately cause a temporary imbalance, also known as the “high”.
The ECS is basically a communication system. As we’ll discuss below, endocannabinoids act as messages that have a unique shape. This shape is recognized only by cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. Once the receptors are activated or inhibited by a certain endocannabinoid, they tell the cell they’re on to behave in a certain way. Since these receptors are so widespread in our bodies, they essentially affect every aspect of our life experience.
Let’s dive in!
If the ECS is a communication system where endocannabinoids are the message, then cannabinoid receptors are the receivers. They’re fixed molecules sitting on the outside of cells, and are compatible with certain cannabinoids. According to the location and type of cell they’re on, they can then trigger the cell to respond in a certain way.
The number of cannabinoid receptors is the limiting factor in the ECS. That simply means that normally endocannabinoids are always there and it’s the receptors that fluctuate in number. When a cell is under stressful conditions it senses this and produces more receivers to catch more messages. This process is called “upregulation”.
Alternatively, if the cell is receiving too much of these messages, it will “downregulate” receptor production. This pattern can be seen very clearly in THC tolerance. When THC levels are too much over a long time, the cells fight this overstimulation by reducing the number of receptors.
There is still plenty of research in the field, but we have conclusively identified two main cannabinoid receptors:
CB1 receptors: Mostly in the central nervous system (including the brain)
CB2 receptors: Located more peripherally
Cannabinoid receptors type 1 (CB1) are located throughout the central and peripheral nervous system. However, lower concentrations are found in other tissues and organs as well. Usually, they sit on the surface of nerve cells.
Unlike most neuronal receptors, CB1 receptors cause the nervous system to relax when activated by cannabinoids. Activating these receptors initiates a cascade of reactions that eventually slow down the fiery messages that are usually passed through the nerve cells. It is for these reasons that cannabis has a famously relaxing effect.
CB2 receptors are typically found in immunological organs and immunological cells, where they aid in the coordination of responses to infection, damage, and other functions that maintain the body healthy and disease-free. The CB2 receptor has recently been discovered to play a function in inflammatory response as well as pain perceptions. The CB2 receptor, like the CB1 receptor during pain stages, rises in concentration in sites of tissue inflammation. The CB2 receptor is hypothesized to be an immune system regulator.
The term “endo” comes from “endogenous” and it means that these are cannabinoids (mostly associated with cannabis) but they are naturally available in our bodies and carry out an important function.
Endocannabinoids are synthesized from fatty acids in our diet. Omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 acids, are great raw materials for your body to make endocannabinoids. Foods like fish, nuts, and seeds contain these fatty acids in high proportions.
The two most well researched endocannabinoids are Anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).
Another famous endocannabinoid is 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). It acts on nerve cells by regulating intracellular calcium levels, which in turn affects neuron firing. Research suggests that 2-AG is critical for regulating seizures. It does this by obstructing the nervous system from becoming too stimulated. It also has a role in keeping the heart healthy. By eliminating plaque buildup in the veins and arteries. It also influences feelings of hunger and regulates various other important physiological processes.
How Does the Endocannabinoid System Affect the Body?
For a synchronized mind-body connection, it’s important to look after your endocannabinoid system. The function of this system is to preserve and control homeostasis. Homeostasis is responsible for keeping balance in the body. The endocannabinoid system regulates homeostasis. It does this by aiding the body and brain in accepting change and responding. Sometimes called a bridge between the body and the mind. The system collaborates with all the organs. With the immune system, hormonal system, and nervous system whenever it faces stress.
It is what aids us in engaging with the environment around us. The human body is always in an interchange with its surroundings, maintaining and adapting to new stressors and inputs. But stress is something different. It is what promotes a protective response in nature. These can include all such activities that can occur in daily life. So, the purpose of the endocannabinoid system is to help your body run smoothly even in stressful conditions.
It is clear that the endocannabinoid system has a wide effect all through the body. Almost all types of vital sensations in the body are in some way or the other influenced by the ECS. For example, it plays a part in regulating sleep, metabolism, hunger, mood, coordination, immune system, reproductive organs, as well as, pleasure, pain and reward systems, and much more.
Unlike endocannabinoids, some molecules acting on the same CB1 and CB2 receptors can be taken from outside the body. The term “Phyto” in Phyto cannabinoids means that they’re from a plant origin, usually from cannabis and hemp.
THC mimics the effects of anandamide. It goes right into similar receptors. But THC works like a supercharged version of anandamide. It over activates all the connecting systems to create that all too familiar, high feeling. But it is also linked with some side effects such as anxiety, especially when taken in high doses.
CBD has a different connection with the receptors.
It seems to change the way that other cannabinoids interact with the receptor. For example, CBD seems to force anandamide to hold on to the receptor for a longer time, rather than directly activate the receptor. This is why you can’t get high off CBD alone, and why it’s deemed harmless. It’s also responsible for blunting the side effects of THC when taken together as it lets your endogenous cannabinoids compete with THC over the receptors. CBD is also known to better target CB2 receptors, leading to its popular use as an anti-inflammatory.