What is the Endocannabinoid System Anyway?
Full-spectrum CBD is used to support a huge variety of wellness benefits, from management of pain, anxiety, and sleep disorders to curbing drug cravings in recovering addicts. How can one substance be linked to such a wide range of positive effects? Answering that question requires an explanation of the human endocannabinoid system.
Endocannabinoid System – Definition
“Endo” comes from the latin prefix meaning within or inside. “Cannabinoid” refers to cannabinoid compounds. It makes sense that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the system responsible for creating the biological pathways that handle cannabinoid compounds within the body.
The structures and substances that comprise the endocannabinoid system are:
Cannabinoid receptors – Receptor sites are found throughout the body (the brain, spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system of nerves and ganglia found in connective tissue, skin, organs, and immune cells).
Endocannabinoids – Naturally occurring neurotransmitter compounds that bear a chemical resemblance to those derived from the cannabis plant.
Enzymes – Specifically, those responsible for facilitating the creation and breakdown of endocannabinoids.
The ECS is present and active in everyone, even people who don’t consume any kind of THC or CBD. The human body is constantly producing and breaking down its own endocannabinoids as part of normal physiological function.
Purpose of the Endocannabinoid System
The present body of research describes the ECS as a major neuromodulatory system involved in maintaining brain homeostasis. In other words, it helps regulate and maintain normal brain function when it gets thrown off by certain external stresses or stimuli.
Endocannabinoid levels are known to be affected by physical exercise, pain, stress, sleep, and inflammation. When these endocannabinoids interact with receptors, the central nervous system coordinates various biological responses depending on the type of cannabinoid and which receptors are engaged. Through these mechanisms, endocannabinoids and the greater ECS have been shown to play key roles in appetite, memory, pain management, programmed cell death (apoptosis), regulating the stress response, and more.
The ECS is one of the more intriguing, lesser understood dimensions of human anatomy and physiology. It has only been known to scientists since 1990. There has been increased therapeutic interest and research into the ECS in recent years, but cannabis’ status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance throws a wrench into some areas of study.
How Do THC and CBD React with the ECS?
Of course, the body’s natural endocannabinoids aren’t the only substances that interact with ECS receptors. Exogenous (external) cannabinoids like THC and CBD also engage with them.
Because cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the brain and body, both internal and external cannabinoids can have a huge range of system-wide effects. They influence how we think, feel, and react. That’s part of what makes ECS research so exciting – it may reveal new levers to pull, so to speak, in addressing hard-to-treat diseases like mental illness.
To add further complexity, there are at least two kinds of cannabinoid receptors, and different types of exogenous cannabinoids interact with these receptors in different ways to produce varying effects:
THC binds with both CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are the primary type of cannabinoid receptor found in the brain, and they are also found throughout the rest of the central and peripheral nervous system. CB2 receptors are less densely populated in the brain and are mostly found throughout the body. THC therefore produces mental and physical effects.
CBD does not bind well to CB1 or CB2 receptors on its own. Instead, it interacts with the receptors indirectly, prompting the body’s natural production of feel-good endocannabinoids.
This explains why THC produces noticeable psychoactive effects (i.e. it gets you high) while CBD does not. While CBD impacts the activity of the ECS as a whole, it doesn’t interact with the receptors in the brain that contribute to euphoria, sedation, or impairment.
More ECS Fun Facts
The endocannabinoid system is named after cannabis, not the other way around. Cannabis was smoked long before the underlying biological pathways of getting high were ever understood. It was the observed effects of marijuana intoxication that first prompted inquiry into therapeutic research and the discovery of non-psychoactive cannabinoids.
Dogs and cats have endocannabinoid systems too. Dogs have more cannabinoid receptors than humans do, which is believed to make them disproportionately more susceptible to the effects of CBD and THC.
THC and CBD are just two of over 100 known cannabinoids. Scientists are still identifying new exogenous and endogenous cannabinoids.