In biology class, you probably didn’t learn about the endocannabinoid system. The immune system, the digestive system, and the central nervous system probably made an appearance in your grade-school textbook – but the system underlying it all was usually left out.
The endocannabinoid system is a fundamental aspect of human physiology, and responsible for managing many aspects of your health and wellness. Despite the vital role it plays, it is a relatively recent scientific discovery stemming from research in the early 1990s. The science about what it does and how it works is rapidly unfolding, hence why it’s only recently become a hot topic in health and wellness.
What is the endocannabinoid system, and what role does it play in managing our bodily functions? More importantly, what is the connection between the cannabis plant and the endocannabinoid system? Welcome to the high school biology class you missed: Endocannabinoid System 101.
What is the Endocannabinoid System? The Basics
The best way to describe the endocannabinoid system is a body-wide network of transmissions of receivers. There are two primary endocannabinoid receptors called CB1 and CB2. There are also many naturally produced chemical transmissions that interact with these receptors called endocannabinoids.
The system is responsible for managing stress, both mental and physical. It works hard to maintain a constant balance inside the body. Scientists often call this “homeostasis.” Every day your endocannabinoid system regulates your mood, memory, fertility, immunity, appetite, and your experience of pain.
For example, if you get stressed out at work, if you get a migraine, or have a stomach bug, your endocannabinoid system plays a role in returning your body to normal. It releases endocannabinoids to reduce stress, it regulates pain and inflammation to soothe a migraine, and it kicks your immune system into gear to fight off pathogens. For a system you knew nothing about, you can see what a crucial job it plays. It chugs along in the background every single day, making sure everything else is under control and balanced.
Your endocannabinoid system is also responsible for the effects (both recreational and medicinal) you get from cannabis. But more on that in a second.
How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?
There are two primary receptors: CB1 and CB2 receptors. They are spread out throughout your body, each concentrated in different areas. For example, most of the CB1 receptors are in your brain, central nervous system, and organs. The other receptor, CB2, is primarily spread throughout the immune system.
When you experience an internal or external stressor, your endocannabinoid system kicks into action. Your spinal cord and the central nervous system immediately send out instructions through neurotransmitters. These are the little chemical communicators known as endocannabinoids. Some examples of the ones your body naturally produces are anandamide (nicknamed the bliss molecule) and 2-AG (pain, mood, and appetite mediation).
Depending on the situation, your central nervous system will send out different endocannabinoid instructions. They travel through your body to the problem area and get to work activating or inhibiting different activities. For example, it may turn the local immune cells on to combat an invading pathogen. Alternately, it could turn it off when the immune response is no longer needed.
Cannabidiol and the Endocannabinoid System
The fascinating part of the endocannabinoid system is the way cannabinoids like CBD seamlessly work within it. We can actually thank the researchers who were examining cannabis for the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. Through their research into cannabinoids, they uncovered our body’s network of receptors and chemical communications.
Cannabis is a plant containing more than 100 different chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Each of these cannabinoids is thought to have a unique beneficial effect. The two most studied cannabinoids are THC and CBD.
When we consume THC, these molecules head straight to our brain, where there is a large concentration of CB1 receptors. The THC molecule fits perfectly into the CB1 receptor, like a key into a lock. This direct relationship is responsible for the high you get from consuming strains of cannabis with THC. It’s the only intoxicant in cannabis, as its the only molecule known to form this uninterrupted connection.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the other primary plant-sourced cannabinoid. It is non-intoxicating and has little affinity with any of our endocannabinoids receptors. It regulates the activity of many non-cannabinoid receptors. While it doesn’t bond directly with either the CB1 or CB2 receptors, the molecule still plays a valuable role in our health and wellness. For example, CBD may inhibit the reuptake of certain endocannabinoids like anandamide (the bliss molecule), or reduce inflammation by preventing specific proteins from binding into receptors.
Our endocannabinoid system plays such a crucial role in so many aspects of our health and wellness, it’s an emerging target of medicine. It’s why there is so much interest in cannabis – as it interacts so smoothly with the system. Plus, it does so with little to no risk of an adverse reaction, tolerance development, and dependence. With more research, there may be a role for cannabis in the future of pain medication, neuroprotection, chronic inflammation, and gastrointestinal disorders.