Your Endocannabinoid System
Integral to optimal health
To understand how cannabis can have such wide and varying beneficial effects on so many biological systems in the body, we must first understand our endocannabinoid system. Scientists first discovered the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the late 1980’s, as they tried to understand how THC, the most recognised phyto-cannabinoid alongside CBD, was causing its infamous reactions within the body. It was during their search for a protein receptor molecule that THC would fit that the first of our, soon to be named, endocannabinoid receptors was discovered.
There are many ‘lock & key’ systems similar to the ECS within the body, like endorphins that bind to our dopamine receptors. The right shaped ‘key’ is needed to fit the host receptor ‘lock’, which then triggers various chemical reactions and ‘communication pathways’ between cells.
It was then discovered that these cannabinoid receptors were distributed throughout our immune and central nervous system, and on specific cells within the brain, gastrointestinal system, endocrine system, reproductive & urinary tracts, spleen, heart & circulatory system; which lends explanation to how one family of compounds can have such far reaching effects on so many biological systems essential for health and emotional well-being.
In 1992 scientists discovered the first of the five ‘inner’ cannabinoids, that our body makes to fit these receptors, named ‘endogenous cannabinoids’ or endocannabinoids (endo meaning ‘within’). The first to be discovered was Anandamide (also titled N-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA), followed 3 years later with the discovery of 2-arachidonlygylycerol (2-AG). Other endocannabinoid compounds have since been discovered.
The ECS is incredibly complex and found in nearly all animals. It is the way our internal environment responds to external stimuli in an attempt to keep the body and biological systems balanced and working optimally.
It regulates the flow of information between cells, playing a vital role in maintaining homeostasis within the body, which basically means keeping our bodies in ‘balance’ when triggered by such imbalance-inducing phenomena as illness, injury, inflammation, stress etc.
We now understand that it regulates an incredibly wide range of bodily functions including our immune system, pain perception, digestion, appetite, memory, hormonal regulation, bone growth, inflammatory reactions, inhibition of tumour cells, motor function and even protects neural tissue and stimulates neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells).
Science is fast recognising it as perhaps the most important & wide spread physiological system involved in establishing and maintaining human health, and that a malfunctioning or under-active ECS could be the root cause of many medical conditions from fibromyalgia to various forms of mental illness.
Understanding of our ECS and the role it plays in our health is still in its infancy. We know it is comprised of three principal elements: five identified endocannabinoids, the endocannabinoid receptors of which two have been confirmed and a third suspected, and the enzymes that either synthesise or metabolise the endocannabinoids.
Two main types of receptors are currently agreed upon and these can be found throughout the body. In some locations we find Type 1 receptors (CB1), other areas have Type 2 receptors (CB2) and some locations express both.
CB2 receptors are found generously distributed throughout our immune systems with many immune-related cells carrying them: T-cells, B-cells, monocytes, macrophages, spleen, and tonsils; which leaves little guess room as to why endo & phyto cannabinoids have such a huge role to play in our overall health and resilience against disease.
We find an increase of CB2 receptors in the Peripheral Nervous system after sustaining an injury helping to decrease the sensation of pain; and we also find CB2 receptors in bone increasing osteoblast activity, which stimulates bone growth and density.
Areas that express both CB1 & CB2 receptors are located in the heart, the liver, gastrointestinal system, reproductive system and skin, offering protection, balance and pain reduction when and where needed. As there are no receptors in the area of the brain responsible for breathing and heart beat phytocannabinoids cannot cause respiratory or cardiac arrest, meaning that it is not possible to ingest a fatal dose of cannabis.
CB1 receptors are found throughout the brain. They can be found on cells in areas of the brain responsible for sensing pain, giving reason to why so many experience pain relief from using cannabis.
We also find CB1 receptors in areas of the brain connected to memory & learning, and areas that generate emotional responses such as fear, depression and anxiety. They are found in areas of the cerebellum that control motor control and coordination, and in the hypothalamus triggering appetite, which can be very useful for those underweight or undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
Offering further relief to those on chemotherapy are the CB1 receptors found in the dorsal vagal complex, reducing the occasions of nausea and vomiting. We also find receptors in the pleasure and reward areas of the brain explaining the euphoric sensations that many enjoy from using cannabis.
It is now known that endocannabinoids extend their therapeutic benefits further than the endocannabinoid system, and can interact with other CB type receptors and ion channels.
These include, amongst others,
- GPR55 which is known to regulate pain, and is linked to energy homeostasis and to metabolic imbalances associated with diabetes and obesity;
- GPR18 known to regulate a wide range of physiological functions ranging from pressure within the eye to cell migration;
- GPR119 seen to function as a “fat sensor” reducing appetite and therefore weight gain;
- TPRV a family of protein ion channels that are involved with pain transmission and inflammation response;
- PPARS receptors that regulate communication of genes with metabolism and energy, and also recognised to offer cardio and neuro protection.
It is painfully clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg in understanding the magnitude, importance and intricate nature of the body’s endocannabinoid system. Evidence and research clearly supports the hypothesis that a healthy ECS can help ease, and in many cases, cure numerous common medical conditions.
We currently do not have a pharmaceutical medication that directly addresses imbalances within the ECS but the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis are non-toxic and are seen to directly interact and help rebalance this essential in-built defence system.
So much more research is desperately needed, and thankfully as cannabis laws soften, greater study can begin in earnest of what cannabis and her wealth of cannabinoids and other beneficial compounds can offer us in the fight against disease.