We’ve written before about cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, and how they impart specific effects while offering a variety of potential benefits. But for all these incredible and medicinally useful effects, there’s one topic that doesn’t always get the attention it should: How does cannabis have such a powerful effect on our bodies in the first place?
The answer lies in something called the “human endocannabinoid system,” or the ECS. The endocannabinoid system is a truly remarkable regulatory network that helps us regulate many crucial functions, including:
- Appetite and metabolism
- Immune response
- Proper sleep function
- Communication between cells
But for all the importance of these processes, our knowledge of the ECS system is relatively new. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that we’ve only known about the human endocannabinoid system for about thirty years, which means that many doctors working in the field today know very little about it.
This fact helps explain many doctors’ reluctance to embrace cannabis medicine, and if you’re one of the countless thousands seeking relief through cannabis medicine, we believe this information could be useful in helping convince the skeptical.
In today’s post, we’ll introduce the human endocannabinoid system and some key aspects of endocannabinoid system function, including information on the two key types of endocannabinoid receptors. By the end, you should have a solid grasp about what the human endocannabinoid system does and why it’s such a vital component of our overall health and well-being.
The Human Endocannabinoid System: An Introduction
Unlike a vital organ such as the heart or lungs, the endocannabinoid system is a wide-ranging network of specialized cells found all throughout the body. This fact can make it somewhat hard to understand, but one way to think about the ECS system is as the “gatekeeper” for cannabis compounds to pass into the body. Specialized endocannabinoid receptors called “CB1” and “CB2” interface with specific cannabinoids and terpenes to admit them into our bodies. But it took researchers nearly thirty years to come to this important finding. Here’s how it happened.
The story begins in Israel in the early 1960s, when a researcher named Dr. Raphael Mechoulam began studying cannabinoids. Eventually, he isolated the two most important cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Groundbreaking though these discoveries were, they didn’t solve the mystery of how they interact with the body. That wouldn’t come until 1990, when molecular biologist Lisa Matsuda was searching for the spot where THC and CBD actually interacted with the body. She discovered them in the brains of lab rats, in the form of those specialized endocannabinoid receptor cells we referenced a moment ago, CB1 and CB2. Soon, Matsuda and her colleagues had identified other components and realized they were parts of a much larger system, one which would soon become known as the human endocannabinoid system.
Still, it’s what happened next that may be the most astonishing part. Researchers discovered two endocannabinoids—or cannabinoids produced by the body—called anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. And anandamide, in many ways, is similar to THC in terms of its ability to mediate pain perception and other effects.
What’s the big deal? It means that in large part, the cannabinoids in cannabis are “speaking the same language” as our bodies. This is a major reason some researchers believe cannabis can be so effective in helping us regulate bodily processes such as inflammation related to pain and injuries.
If the body’s own anandamide is similar to the cannabinoid THC, let’s not forget CBD, the “second cannabinoid.” Just like THC, CBD interfaces with the human endocannabinoid system through those CB1 and CB2 receptor cells. But it does it in a very different way than THC. CBD interfaces only indirectly with these cells, instead activating a different receptor type called TRVP1 to help us stabilize body temperature, regulate inflammation, and perform other essential tasks.
Regardless of how it enters the body, CBD is a cannabinoid believed to have potentially vast medicinal potential. According to one recent study, it is believed to play a wide range of different roles in the body, including reducing the impacts of Alzheimer’s disease, reducing the potential for metastasis in certain cancers, and decreasing the inflammation associated with COPD, a serious respiratory ailment. That’s quite a lot for one cannabinoid, and it’s all thanks to the human endocannabinoid system.
Endocannabinoid System Function: When Things Go Wrong
Like every bodily process, sometimes the human endocannabinoid system doesn’t function as it’s supposed to. That’s the idea behind Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome (CECD), a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough of its own endocannabinoids. It’s believed this syndrome may play a role in such seemingly unrelated disorders as:
- Chronic anxiety
- Chronic pain
- Substance abuse
It’s too early to speculate on the cause of CECD. But some researchers have suggested that it might be reversed by ingesting more CBD to stop an enzyme called “FAAH” from breaking down too much anandamide. But while it’s too early to know, the idea that the disorders listed above may all be linked is gaining steam.
The Human Endocannabinoid System: Wrapping Up
If you need a reminder on just how critical the human endocannabinoid system is, here’s something to chew on: It’s not just limited to humans! Believe it or not, every animal—from penguins to horses to sea urchins to crabs—has an endocannabinoid system. That’s a clue as to how important this regulatory network really is.
The next time you’re in any of our family of dispensaries, consider how the cannabinoids and terpenes found in our products will interact with your very own ECS. Of course you can always browse our live menus to see what we’ve got in stock today. We look forward to seeing you!