5 Things to Know About the Endocannabinoid System

Jul 26, 2023

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the most consequential network in the human body that you’ve probably never heard of. Within the next decade, there’s a good chance that research into the ECS will help redefine what we know about physiology, health, and potentially even how we treat disease. 

Here’s what we know so far.

What is the endocannabinoid system? 

The endocannabinoid system is a complex signaling network that the body uses to regulate its internal environment. The ECS was only discovered in 1988, so researchers still have a lot of work to do – but it’s clear that the system has an incredibly vast array of roles and responsibilities. The ECS uses the body’s own naturally produced cannabinoids (a.k.a. endocannabinoids) to modulate specific activities of cells located throughout the body, thereby helping to maintain the hyper-delicate balance of homeostatic function of other systems. 

What does the endocannabinoid system do? 

As far as researchers can tell, the endocannabinoid system exists primarily to ensure homeostasis in the body. By regulating cellular activity, the ECS ensures that biological functions big and small remain in a harmonious balance. More specifically, the ECS helps to help regulate things like:

  • Sleep
  • Mood 
  • Appetite 
  • Memory
  • Reproduction and fertility
  • Gut health
  • Inflammation
  • Immunity
  • Pleasure / reward

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

The ECS works by sending endocannabinoid messengers to specific cellular receptors located throughout the body. These receptors trigger the performance of specific cellular functions that support the homeostatic activities of other systems like the nervous and immune systems. This signaling network is incredibly dense and relies on a few important components. 

Endocannabinoids – the chemical messengers

Humans have been using cannabis for a few thousand years – but the human body has been naturally producing cannabinoids for as long as there have been humans. These endocannabinoids are produced in the brain, muscles, fatty tissues, and other parts of the body. Chemically, they bear a strong resemblance to cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.

CB1 and CB2s – the cellular receptors 

If endocannabinoid messengers are the keys, then CB1 and CB2 receptors are the two primary locks that these endocannabinoid keys fit into. Both of these receptor types are located on cells that are scattered throughout the body, but some regions are more heavily populated than others. 

CB1 receptors are densely packed into the brain. When acted on by endocannabinoids, they help to regulate a vast array of functions governed by the central nervous system. Sleep, appetite, memory, pain perception, and many other complex neurological processes can be influenced by endocannabinoids’ effects on CB1 receptors.

CB2 receptors are more evenly distributed through the body than CB1 receptors but do have heavy concentrations within the body’s immune tissues. As their locations suggest, CB2 receptors are thought to play a significant role in the regulation of the body’s immune functions. When acted upon by endocannabinoids, these receptors likely also exert influence over things like inflammation, gut health, and fertility.

Enzymes – the clean-up crew

Finally, endocannabinoids have to be eliminated after they’ve delivered their desired effects. That’s where enzymes like fatty acid amide hydrolase and monoacylglycerol acid lipase come in. These enzymes break down endocannabinoids so that they can be cleared from the body.

How would it feel to have an endocannabinoid system that’s grossly out of balance?

An ECS with any kind of gross dysfunction would likely cause the body to lose its ability to maintain control over a wide array of highly delicate functions. It’s difficult to predict exactly what would happen to a given individual, but homeostasis will be negatively affected if ECS functions become severely inhibited.

It may feel a little bit like trying to live in a house with a malfunctioning thermostat – except in this case, the broken thermostat would also regulate things like the water pressure, electricity, and everything else that makes a house livable. Nothing would be broken necessarily, but without the delicate balance required by a home’s various appliances and fixtures, nothing would work properly.

How do cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system?  

Once introduced to the body, cannabinoids like those found in cannabis sativa behave similarly to the endocannabinoids naturally produced by the body. They bind to (or in some cases inhibit other cannabinoids’ ability to bind to) CB1 and/or CB2 receptors, and in some cases myriad other receptors,  and create a variety of physiological effects. Just as different endocannabinoids bind with different receptors to create different effects, different externally consumed cannabinoids will behave the same way – hence why THC delivers such markedly different effects than a cannabinoid like THCV.

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