Hands holding a hemp cola with the text "The endocannabinoid system"

Have you ever wondered why your CBD oil helps you relax at the end of the day or why music sounds amazing after a recreational edible? All of hemp and cannabis’s effects can be traced back to the expansive system of receptors and neurotransmitters found throughout your body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The endocannabinoid system plays a role in many of our bodily functions. In this post, we’re going to cover:

  1. Three main components of the ECS
  2. Physiological functions our ECS regulates
  3. The role phytocannabinoids play in our ECS

What is CBD?

CBD, short for cannabidiol, is one of the more than 100 chemicals hemp plants produce called cannabinoids. Unlike THC, another well-known cannabinoid, CBD isn’t psychoactive and won’t make you feel high. This non-intoxicating quality makes CBD an attractive option for those seeking relief from pain, anxiety, and other symptoms without the mind-altering effects of marijuana or certain pharmaceutical drugs.

While research has yet to determine how CBD affects your body fully, we know that as a cannabinoid, CBD works with your body’s ECS by facilitating the uptake of beneficial endocannabinoids. Some studies suggest that CBD may help reduce chronic pain by impacting endocannabinoid receptor activity, reducing inflammation, and interacting with neurotransmitters.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is an all-encompassing network of chemical signalers called endocannabinoids, cellular receptors, and cleanup enzymes found throughout our brains and organs. This system is crucial for maintaining homeostasis, which is the body’s way of keeping internal stability despite external changes.

Originally discovered in 1988 at the St. Louis University Medical School, the endocannabinoid system is still not fully understood. However, 25 years later, we know about the three major components of the endocannabinoid system and how they affect our bodies. These components include endocannabinoids, receptors (CB1 and CB2), and enzymes that help break down the cannabinoids.

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds produced in the body. Our body produces endocannabinoid neurotransmitters to send messages to other parts of our body. These endocannabinoids are similar to cannabinoids found in cannabis but are produced by the body.

Anandamide, the first endocannabinoid discovered in 1992, is involved in our brain’s reward and reinforcement functions. Some studies show that exercise, particularly running, boosts anandamide levels, resulting in the “runner’s high.” Another well-known endocannabinoid is 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), which has been found in high concentrations in the central nervous system and plays a role in regulating appetite, immune system functions, and pain management.

Receptors

The two types of endocannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, are found throughout the body, mainly in the brain, central nervous systems, and organs.

  • CB1 receptors: Found primarily in the brain and central nervous system. They regulate functions including pain sensations, inflammation, memory, and appetite. The CB1 receptor can also be activated by external phytocannabinoids, leading to psychoactive effects like altered perception, relaxation, and euphoria.
  • CB2 receptors: Found more in organs and circulating immune cells. When activated by cannabinoids, CB2 receptors play a role in the body’s immune response to inflammation and neuropathic pain. These receptors are critical for maintaining the body’s internal environment and can influence a range of physiological processes.

Enzymes

Enzymes act as the cleanup crew for your endocannabinoid system. Once cannabinoids interact with your CB1 and CB2 receptors, enzymes break down the cannabinoids and flush them from your system. This process ensures that endocannabinoid signaling is transient and not prolonged unnecessarily.

Research has identified two main enzymes:

  • Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH): Prevents excessive and prolonged activation of the CB1 receptor.
  • Monoacylglycerol Lipase (MAGL): Prevents prolonged activation of both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

These enzymes play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of endocannabinoids in the body, ensuring that they are produced and degraded as needed.

What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?

The endocannabinoid system helps our bodies regulate a variety of functions and processes, aiming to maintain homeostasis by making us more resilient to external pressures. This system is involved in many critical physiological processes, including mood regulation, pain sensation, inflammation response, and sleep patterns.

Emotional Regulation

The ECS helps keep our moods stable by playing a role in anxiety and fear memory processing. Anandamide and our CB1 receptor help us react appropriately to stressful or anxiety-inducing events. Studies have shown that the ECS can influence mood and anxiety disorders, and modulating this system could potentially lead to new treatments for these conditions.

Pain

The ECS plays a crucial role in how we perceive pain. When we experience painful stimuli, our body produces endocannabinoids to help regulate our perception of pain. This system modulates pain signals at multiple levels of the nervous system, from peripheral nerves to the brain.

We’ve been able to manufacture pharmaceuticals that inhibit the ECS’s natural enzymes to increase the levels of our endocannabinoids. A surplus of endocannabinoids can reduce the amount of pain we feel. This approach is being explored for the development of new pain management therapies, particularly for chronic pain conditions.

Inflammation

CB2 receptors, activated during inflammation, help regulate our immune and inflammation response. Endocannabinoids can reduce inflammation by binding to CB2 receptors and regulating the immune response. This anti-inflammatory action is why cannabinoids are being researched as potential treatments for inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Sleep

Researchers believe endocannabinoids are involved in our sleep cycle and the time we spend in certain sleep states. Some studies link anandamide to our sleep-wake cycle and the neurotransmitter adenosine. Endocannabinoids may influence the duration and quality of sleep by interacting with specific brain regions that regulate sleep patterns.

Phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD are also being studied for their effects on sleep. THC is known to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and can influence the overall duration of sleep. CBD, on the other hand, may promote wakefulness when taken in smaller doses but help with sleep when taken in higher doses. Understanding these effects could lead to better sleep aids derived from cannabis.

Memory & Learning

Multiple studies link the ECS to our brain’s ability to learn and commit experiences to memory. This is partly due to the ECS’s role in stress processing and the ability of phytocannabinoids to influence memory. For example, THC is known to impair short-term memory, but it may also protect against neurodegenerative diseases by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.

Cardiovascular Function

The ECS influences our cardiovascular system by modulating processes critical in preventing atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the hardening of the arteries due to plaque buildup. Endocannabinoids can dilate blood vessels and reduce blood pressure, which are essential factors in cardiovascular health.

The Role of Phytocannabinoids

The ECS has expanded our understanding of human biology and opened new horizons for all-natural plant-based therapies. Hemp and cannabis produce cannabinoids external to our bodies, referred to as phytocannabinoids.

  • THC: A CB1 agonist responsible for cannabis’s psychoactive properties like time dilation and euphoria. THC’s ability to activate CB1 receptors in the brain leads to its well-known psychoactive effects, but it also has therapeutic potential for pain relief, appetite stimulation, and nausea reduction.
  • CBD: Doesn’t produce feelings of intoxication but may help alleviate pain and assist with sleep by facilitating the uptake of beneficial endocannabinoids. CBD’s interaction with the ECS is complex and involves multiple pathways, including the modulation of receptor activity and the inhibition of endocannabinoid breakdown.

The cannabis plant produces over 100 cannabinoids, THC and CBD being the most well-known. As we learn more about the endocannabinoid system, different phytocannabinoids, and the entourage effect, we may finally figure out how to fine-tune plant-based therapies for certain ailments. The entourage effect refers to the synergistic interaction between various cannabinoids and terpenes in the cannabis plant, which may enhance the therapeutic effects compared to isolated compounds.

Endocannabinoid System & Future Research

The ECS and its interactions with endogenous and phytocannabinoids represent an exciting frontier for medicine and academic research. However, legal restrictions on cannabis, specifically THC, hinder large-scale research. Despite this, endocannabinoid system research is ramping up, and we should expect exciting new findings in the coming years.

Current research is exploring the potential of cannabinoids in treating a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and even cancer. As legal barriers are gradually lifted and more research is conducted, our understanding of the ECS and its therapeutic potential will continue to grow.

Conclusion

The endocannabinoid system is a complex and vital part of our bodies that helps regulate many essential functions. From mood and pain to sleep and immune response, the ECS plays a critical role in maintaining our overall health and well-being. As research progresses, we can look forward to new insights and treatments that harness the power of this fascinating system.

FAQs

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

  • The ECS is a network of chemical signalers, receptors, and enzymes found throughout the body that helps regulate various bodily functions and maintain homeostasis.

How does CBD interact with the endocannabinoid system?

  • CBD interacts with the ECS by facilitating the uptake of beneficial endocannabinoids, although it doesn’t produce psychoactive effects like THC.

What are the main components of the ECS?

  • The ECS comprises three main components: endocannabinoids, receptors (CB1 and CB2), and enzymes (FAAH and MAGL).

What role do CB1 and CB2 receptors play in the body?

  • CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain and central nervous system, regulating pain, inflammation, memory, and appetite. CB2 receptors are found in organs and immune cells, influencing immune response and inflammation.

How does the endocannabinoid system affect pain perception?

  • The ECS helps regulate pain perception by producing endocannabinoids that interact with receptors to modulate pain signals. For more visit our website.
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