What Is The Endocannabinoid System?

By: Saif Khan

During the 1990’s a group of scientists in Israel discovered a complex and widespread system of neuro-transmitters in the human body. They noticed that there were two particular receptor types that dominated this system and discovered internally produced and externally consumed molecules that stimulated or interacted with them.

That team of scientists was led by the pioneering Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, and their discovery was to be known as the Endocannabinoid System. This name was chosen due to the molecules that alerted the scientists to activity in this vast network of transmitters - cannabinoids.

In particular, the scientists discovered that the body naturally produces compounds called anandamide and 2-AG (both also named by Mechoulam’s team), which directly or indirectly interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors. The scientists also noted that a pair of chemically similar compounds were found in the cannabis plant: THC and CBD. THC acts as a plant-based version of anandamide and the presence of CBD increases the body’s production of 2-AG. This was the beginning of a much deeper understanding of how and why cannabis is assimilated by the human body so easily, though there is still much to explain about the endocannabinoid system and its role in health.

Who Has It?
All mammalian creatures and animals with vertebrae possess this vast neuro-transmitter system, and in the human case, it happens to be the largest neuro-transmitter system in the body.

The two specialized receptor types currently identified are known as Cannabinoid Receptor 1 and Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB1 and CB2). While CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain and throughout the central nervous system, the CB2 receptors are found throughout the immune system - including T-cells and B-cells, both produced in bone marrow - as well as having a dense concentration in the spleen.

What Does It Do?
From numerous studies and analysis, the leading cannabis scientists agree that the primary function of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain or restore balance, a process known as homeostasis. What this means, is that if a particular cell or group of cells are not functioning as they should be, the endocannabinoid system can regulate various chemical and electrical signals to restore normal cellular function.

Dr. Sunil Aggarwal’s analogy of a conductor conducting an orchestra is an apt depiction of how the ECS achieves this - by increasing a certain signal or decreasing a certain signal, the overall balance or equilibrium of physiological processes is maintained.

The main departments in which the ECS plays a role are the following, coined by Vincenzo Di Marzo as ‘Relax, Eat, Sleep, Protect, Forget’.

RELAX - Endocannabinoids are shown to induce neurological changes that moderate pain and reduce anxiety.

EAT - Endocannabinoids regulate appetite and digestion; affect muscle and fat tone as well as glucose metabolism.

SLEEP - Endocannabinoids are found throughout the nervous system, regulate the body’s energy systems and metabolic processes, all of which play a part in sleep.

PROTECT - Cannabinoids have powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, as well as anti-tumor activity, giving some insight into why they are useful for so many different illnesses.

FORGET - Cannabinoids play an important role in what is known as ‘memory extinction’ - the destruction of traumatic memories - allowing people to overcome fears from difficult situations they have experienced.

How Does This Link To Cannabis Medicine?
This gives a very basic set of parameters to understand the ECS by, in addition to showing how cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant can be relevant to illnesses and diseases that are involved with many or all of the functions described. It should hopefully illuminate some of the reasons that cannabis works so effectively for such a myriad of ailments: With the simplified explanations here one should be able to see why cannabis medicine can be recommended for pain, inflammation, anxiety, weight issues, boosting auto-immune function, cancer and muscle spasms; among numerous others. Finally, It should demonstrate why it is scientifically sound to use cannabinoids from cannabis to supplement the ECS in humans whose body is not in a homeostatic state.

It is important to remember the true picture of the endocannabinoid system is what sceintists like to denote as ‘barely elucidated’ - its discovery coming less than 30 years ago - but alongside the normalization of cannabis medicine continuing to grow exponentially year after year, there is also an incremental increase in understanding of how crucial the endocannabinoid system is and can be in the role of managing and preventing disease.

NB - We will continue to publish more material on the ECS and delve deeper into the specifics of its functions as our platform matures and our audience becomes more aware of its prevalence in the human body.