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The Basics of the Endocannabinoid System

It turns out the human body has a cannabis chemical producing factory called the endocannabinoid system. This system is what enables cannabis to provide such a significant source of relief. To understand cannabis as a medicine, you must first learn about the endocannabinoid system. This system coordinates multiple physiological processes, including motor functions, appetite, sleep, mood, and immune function. It helps regulate our emotions, memory, pain, pleasure and other physical sensations.

All vertebrate species, including humans, have an endocannabinoid system. The ECS is a complex network of endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and enzymes that breakdown the cannabinoids. It functions as a homeostatic regulator, meaning it maintains a consistent and healthy internal environment. This influences different organs to work and communicate effectively with the brain.

WHAT ARE CANNABINOIDS?

Cannabinoids are natural chemical messengers. They can be broken into two main categories: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous cannabinoids, referred to as endocannabinoids, occur naturally within the body. Exogenous cannabinoids are produced externally and seem to be capable of activating the ECS to a greater extent. The exogenous cannabinoids that are commonly found in cannabis are called phytocannabinoids (phyto- meaning coming from a plant).

ENDOCANNABINOIDS VS. PHYTOCANNABINOIDS

Endocannabinoids are molecules produced by cells. They are found all over the human body in the brain, organs, glands, connective tissues and immune cells. The purpose of endocannabinoids and their receptors is to help the human body achieve homeostasis or a sense of equilibrium. Together, they can provide a stable internal environment (regardless of disruptions from the external environment) for cells to function properly. The optimal balance of endocannabinoids ensures the body’s overall health.

The two main endocannabinoids are called anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). In 1994, scientists discovered anandamide, the first endocannabinoid to be identified. Researchers found that anandamide plays an integral, yet still a somewhat mysterious role in the joy and happiness that humans experience. The compound was named after “ananda”, the Sanskrit word for bliss. A few years later, 2-AG was discovered. Scientists found that both anandamide and 2-AG bind directly to our body’s cannabinoid receptors. Both compounds are in high concentration throughout the brain, especially in reward and pain-related regions.

Phytocannabinoids are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants. While phytocannabinoids can be found in hundreds of different plant species, they are present in the highest concentration in the cannabis plant. Though THC and CBD are the most well-known ones, there are over 100 phytocannabinoids, including CBN, CBG and CBC.

Phytocannabinoids, often referred to simply as cannabinoids, have a unique ability to supplement our body when we lack the right amount of endocannabinoids. They communicate with cannabinoid receptors throughout the human body to help things work properly. This is why the cannabis plant can be a source of such significant therapeutic relief. For instance, preliminary evidence has found that cannabinoids may help regulate core processes like blood pressure and blood glucose. When your body has an imbalance due to factors like disease, poor nutrition, emotional stress or pharmaceutical drug consumption, cannabis products can help the body reach a state of homeostasis.

WHAT IS HOMEOSTASIS?

Homeostasis is defined by the OED as “the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.” Let’s break that down. When your body is healthy, it means that your internal environment is balanced. The meaning of homeostasis is when your biological systems are stable despite disturbances from external factors.

The human body needs a precisely tuned environment to function optimally. It has built-in sensors that constantly monitor various functions. Our body temperature, for instance, is closely monitored and regulated through behavior. Human cells require a stable internal temperature of 98.6° F. If that temperature fluctuates by one degree, we feel that imbalance by shivering or sweating. Falling out of balance can lead to many negative repercussions, including disease. Other core homeostatic processes include cell counts and size, blood sugar, oxygen and sleep.

Cannabinoids aren’t the only way to achieve homeostasis, but they certainly seem to be one of the most effective. Other factors that contribute to a balanced internal environment include nutrition, physical activity and general lifestyle changes.

WHY DOES CANNABIS WORK SO WELL WITH THE HUMAN BODY?

To understand how the endocannabinoid system works, you first need to understand how cells communicate. How a cell functions can change when it receives a message. This message can be in the form of electricity (like neurons) or chemicals (something your body produces or an external substance like medicine). Cells have receptors that receive messages and then cause some sort of response. If you imagine a cell receptor as a lock, then the key would be a chemical molecule called an agonist. When an agonist binds to a cell receptor, it sends a message with a specific instruction. The endocannabinoid system is comprised of two cell receptors: CB1 and CB2. Cannabinoids derived from cannabis function as an agonist for these cannabinoid receptors.

The reason why cannabis is so therapeutically effective is that cannabinoids can serve as agonists. They can modulate and interact with our endocannabinoid system. When the ECS is not working properly, problems arise. Some scientists and doctors speculate that certain conditions are possibly the result of an endocannabinoid deficiency.

WHAT IS AN ENDOCANNABINOID DEFICIENCY?

Endocannabinoid deficiency is a theory for conditions and symptoms that develop when the body’s endocannabinoid system is out of balance. When your body’s different systems and organs aren’t working correctly, it could be the result of a lack of endocannabinoids. Though research is limited, groups of scientists are exploring how the endocannabinoid system changes during various diseases and conditions. Some believe that altering how the ECS functions may protect against certain diseases, while others believe that the changes in the ECS could cause disease.

Mounting evidence shows that cannabinoids can be used to supplement an endocannabinoid deficiency in the human body. A 2004 study looked at available medical literature and found that people diagnosed with certain disorders, like migraines, IBS and fibromyalgia, had lower levels of endocannabinoids.

CANNABINOID RECEPTORS

Cannabis works in harmony with the ECS to maintain balance in the human body. When you consume cannabis, the plant’s cannabinoids interact with the cannabinoid receptors located throughout your ECS. However, not all cannabinoids produce the same effects.

There are two main cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, that are found in every major system in the body, especially in the peripheral and central nervous system and immune system. Again, imagine these receptors like little locks that endocannabinoids, cannabinoids and even some terpenes can fit into like a key.

CB1 RECEPTORS

CB1 receptors are located primarily in the brain and central nervous system. They are also present in the kidneys, liver, lungs and reproductive organs. The activation of CB1 receptors has cerebral and behavioral effects. In the brain, they are found in abundance in the regions that control mental and physiological processes such as memory, motor coordination, emotion, and high cognitive function. CB1 receptors are also found in nerve endings where they can help reduce the sensation of pain.

Because of the large amount found in the brain, many hypothesize that this receptor is responsible for the intoxicating effects of certain cannabinoids. Unlike CBD, THC binds directly with CB1 receptors, which may explain the euphoric, psychoactive high humans experience when we consume cannabis.

CB2 RECEPTORS

CB2 receptors are found in the immune system and peripheral nervous system. Because they are located in our body’s periphery, the activation of CB2 receptors doesn’t result in psychotropic effects. Stimulating CB2 receptors can help reduce pain and allow the body to repair itself.

CB2 receptors are especially associated with an inflammation response. When these receptors are activated, they stimulate a response that minimizes damage to tissues and can reduce pain. These anti-inflammatory effects are proven to be beneficial for patients living with inflammation-related disorders, like gastrointestinal conditions.

IN SUMMARY

The endocannabinoid system is a complex aspect of the human body. From the immune system to the peripheral and central nervous system, we’ve discovered just how far-reaching the ECS is. Every patient’s goal is essentially to maintain homeostasis. The cannabis plant can be a powerful tool for helping patients achieve a healthy, balanced internal environment.

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