August 17, 2018
Cannabis and Your Body- The Endocannabinoid System
Have you ever wondered why it is that cannabis gives you that euphoric or “high” feeling? The reason that plant cannabinoids have psychoactive and medicinal effects within the body is, in large part, because we have an endocannabinoid system (ECS) that they can interact with.
Endo stands for endogenous, which means originating within the body. Cannabinoid refers to the group of compounds that activate this system.
This system, an integral part of keeping our bodies in balance, was discovered in the mid-1990s by Israeli researcher Dr. Ralph Mechoulam, who also identified THC as the main active ingredient in cannabis in the early 1960s.
His research discovered two main receptors, cannabinoid 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid 2 (CB2), that are connected to both the endocannabinoids that our body naturally produces and phytocannabinoids (plant-based) like THC and CBD. Our bodies produce the ECs like how our body produces narcotic-like endorphins.
The endocannabinoid system is involved with regulating many basic functions of the human body, including:
- Memory and learning
- Immune function
- Neural development
- Cardiovascular function
The three key components of the ECS are:
- Cannabinoid receptorsfound on the surface of cells
- Endocannabinoids, small molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors
- Metabolic enzymesthat break down endocannabinoids after they are used
- Cannabinoid receptors sit on the surface of cells and “listen” to conditions outside the cell. They transmit information about changing conditions to the inside of the cell, igniting the appropriate cellular response.
- There are two major cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. These aren’t the only cannabinoid receptors, but they were the first ones discovered and remain the best-studied. CB1 receptors are one of the most abundant receptor types in the brain. These are the receptors that interact with THC to produce a euphoric experience. CB2 receptors are more abundant outside of the nervous system, in places like the immune system. However, both receptors can be found throughout the body
- Endocannabinoids are molecules that, like the plant cannabinoid THC, bind to and activate cannabinoid receptors. However, unlike THC, endocannabinoids are found naturally in cells in the human body.
- There are two major endocannabinoids: anandamide and 2-AG (Figure 2). These endocannabinoids are made from fat-like molecules within cell membranes are created on-demand, to be used when needed, none are stored.
The third piece of the endocannabinoid system includes the metabolic enzymes that quickly destroy endocannabinoids once they are used.
- The two big enzymes are FAAH, which breaks down anandamide, and MAGL, which breaks down 2-AG. These enzymes ensure that endocannabinoids get used when they’re needed, but not for longer than necessary. This differentiates endocannabinoids from many other molecular signals in the body, such as hormones or classical neurotransmitters, which can stay for many seconds or minutes, or get packaged and kept for later use.
THC and CBD are the two main cannabinoids that have been studied extensively, however there are many, many more. Some of the ones that have been found and studied include CBG, which binds to both CB1 as well as CB2 and is an antagonist to CB1, meaning that it moderates the effects of THC.
The endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in many important processes and holds promise as a treatment target for many debilitating conditions.
The fact that our body has a system that produces cannabinoids, and is specifically designed to accept only them, should be abundant evidence of cannabis’ healing properties.