Endocannabinoid System: What is It & Why is ECS Important?

avatar WeedWeek / Jul 9, 2020

The cannabis plant offers so much to humanity – high highs, good times, relief from pain, inflammation, and other ailments. But it has also given us insight into the functioning of our own bodies. The endocannabinoid system was discovered thanks to investigations into how cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in marijuana, affect the human body. Talk about plant wisdom. 

There is a lot to learn about the endocannabinoid system, including the ways it affects our mood, ability to sleep, immune system function and more – so let’s jump right in. 

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?   

The endocannabinoid system, also known as the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), serves vital functions within human and other animals’ bodies. The main function of the ECS is to maintain equilibrium among the many internal systems which operate continually, without our conscious awareness, fluctuating based on interactions with one another inside our bodies as well as external conditions. At times, the endocannabinoid system functions as a go-between, for the immune system, the nervous system and the body’s organs. Without a properly functioning endocannabinoid system, a whole host of physical and psychological problems can arise. 

The main components of the endocannabinoid system are chemical compounds (endocannabinoids), cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes. Together, they help achieve a state of homeostasis that you can augment and influence in certain ways with the use of marijuana.  

What Are Cannabinoid Receptors?   

Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body, including in the skin, nerves, fat, bone, immune cells, and organs such as the liver, pancreas, heart, kidney, and GI tract. In the brain, cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in the cerebral cortex (responsible for cognition), hippocampus (which regulates memory), the basal ganglia and cerebellum (controls movement), the hypothalamus (controls hunger) and the amygdala (regulates emotions). 

Cannabinoid receptors come in two types: CB1, found mostly in the brain and the central nervous system but also in the kidneys, liver and lungs; and CB2, which are found in the immune system, lymph cells, and blood cells. Cannabinoid receptors can interact with endocannabinoids – which originate within the human body – and phytocannabinoids, also known simply as cannabinoids, which come from plant sources, namely cannabis sativa. 

What Are Endocannabinoids?   

Endocannabinoids are one of the main components of the endocannabinoid system. These molecules occur naturally within the human body and are tasked with latching on to cannabinoid receptors in order to activate certain functions. Below are two important endocannabinoids that have been identified so far, as well as the functions they serve. 

Anandamide

Anandamide is a mood enhancer – which is one reasons the name is derived from the sanskrit word for “bliss”. Functioning similarly to THC on CB1 and CB2 receptors, anandamide helps promote feelings of happiness while combating anxiety, and may also be helpful in fertility, learning and memory.

2-AG

2-Arachidonoylglycerol, also known as 2-AG, is the most abundant of the endocannabinoids which naturally occur in the human body. Thought to play a role in pain management, appetite and various immune system functions, 2-AG has been shown to exert effects on the blood vessels and heart, and can possibly even play a role in suppressing seizures. 

Metabolic Enzymes

Metabolic enzymes have an important role in the endocannabinoid system, since they are responsible for the creation of endocannabinoids as well as their degradation once they have fulfilled their purpose. 

How Does The Body Produce Endocannabinoids?   

The two most-studied endocannabinoids – anandamide and 2-AG – are synthesized in the body within neurons. These molecules are created on-demand based on various physiological stimuli. Neurons creating endocannabinoids tend to be concentrated within the brain.   

Why Is The Endocannabinoid System Important?   

The endocannabinoid system performs the vital function of achieving and maintaining homeostasis, or balance, within the body. Below are a few examples of the ways this system works:

Memory

Many cannabinoid receptor sites exist within the hippocampus – the brain’s memory center. It is believed that the endocannabinoid system is related to long-term memory storage, since it promotes neurogenesis – meaning the creation of neurons – in the hippocampus.

Analgesia

The endocannabinoid system helps promote analgesia, meaning the inability to feel or perceive pain. Within the spinal cord in particular, the ECS helps to modulate the signaling that results in the experience of pain.  

Appetite

The endocannabinoid system delivers messages of hunger to the brain’s hypothalamus region, which then activates your limbic system (which regulates emotions) so that you feel hungry. When you are full, signals are sent back to your endocannabinoid system, allowing it to send signals to indicate you can stop eating. 

Stress Response

The endocannabinoid system is integral to regulating stress response in the body. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis, or HPA, helps the body perceive and react to stresses. The ECS plays various roles within the HPA, helping influence the perception of a threat situation, the biochemical reactions that launch the stress response into action, and the regulation of behavior within stress-filled scenarios. 

Immune System

The immune system plays a vital role in maintaining bodily health and fighting off perceived threats. The endocannabinoid system is critical to the functioning of the immune system. The ECS is thought to play a role in regulating cytokine production and other immune responses. 

How Does CBD Affect The Endocannabinoid System?   

Cannabidiol, or CBD, interacts indirectly with the endocannabinoid system via both CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors. While scientists aren’t sure of exactly how CBD exerts its influence, some think that CBD doesn’t adhere directly to cannabinoid receptors, and instead inhibits the breakdown in endocannabinoids, allowing these molecules to have a more prolonged effect. CBD is thought to influence the functioning of inflammation, the perception of pain, and body temperature. It can also affect the amount of anandamide, increasing the presence of the molecule responsible for feelings of joy. 

Because of CBD’s stimulation of cannabinoid receptors, it may play a useful role in combating a wide range of ailments. Scientists are still exploring ways that CBD can be useful to humans. 

How Does THC Interact With The ECS?   

THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system more directly than CBD, in that it binds directly to CB1 and CB2 receptor sites, just as endocannabinoids do. THC mimics anandamide as it binds with CB1 receptors in areas of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, basal ganglia, and cerebellum. THC’s interaction with these area’s receptors is what produces psychoactive effects, or the feeling of being “high”. 

The psychoactive effects from THC result from the phytocannabinoid overwhelming the endocannabinoid system by providing a sudden influx of signals, thereby disrupting homeostasis. While this produces highs, it can also cause anxiety, loss of short-term memory and disrupted motor control. It is important to be aware of these potential effects. This is why cannabis is best consumed responsibly. 

How To Treat Endocannabinoid Deficiency   

While science has yet to definitively prove the veracity of these claims, some believe that chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and migraines could be the result of endocannabinoid deficiencies. It might seem logical to simply load up on cannabinoids from plants (via smoking or edibles), and this may help the endocannabinoid system to achieve homeostasis in small amounts. However, supplementing endocannabinoids with phytocannabinoids or other pharmaceuticals risks forming an artificial dependence. 

More effective ways of dealing with an endocannabinoid deficiency are lifestyle modifications. Low-impact aerobic exercise, and consuming a diet rich in probiotics and prebiotics, can form a more solid foundation towards long-term healing.  

Cannabinoids In Plants   

Cannabis sativa is a powerhouse of cannabinoids, particularly for sought-after THC and CBD. However, cannabis doesn’t have the cannabinoid market cornered.  In fact, these compounds are found in a variety of other plants. For example, a South African daisy called helichrysum umbraculigerum contains the cannabinoid cannabigerol.

Other plants contain compounds that mimic cannabinoids or otherwise interact with cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system. These include liverwort, which can engage with the CB1 receptor in similar ways to THC; chocolate, which contains the endocannabinoid anandamide, and kava, containing kavalactones which also bind to CB1 receptor sites. 

Conclusion

In many ways, the endocannabinoid system is an unseen hand directing the endless orchestra of our bodies. Ensuring stability in our bodies and minds is constant work, enabling us to live our best lives. The cannabis sativa plant, in providing cannabinoids which interact seamlessly and in mysterious ways with our endocannabinoid systems can be helpful, healing, and blissful when consumed responsibly. There is so much yet to discover about cannabis and human beings – but the more we understand, the more benefits we can potentially enjoy from this natural partnership.  

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