What Is the Endocannabinoid System and How Does It Work?
As you grow more familiar with the evolving world of cannabis, you may hear use of the mystifying phrase “endocannabinoid system.”
To put it simply, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a cell-signaling system identified by researchers exploring THC (a popular cannabinoid) in the 1990s. As they would soon discover, cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis.
While the research and exploration of the ECS is still ongoing, we now know that it plays an important role in regulating many bodily processes and functions. These include our sleep, mood, memory, appetite, and reproductivity. And even if you don’t use cannabis, the ECS is still existent and active in your own body.
So what exactly is this system, and how does it work? Read on to learn more about the ECS, including how it interacts with cannabis.
How It Works
The ECS is comprised of three primary components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.
Endocannabinoids are molecules made by your body that keep internal functions running smoothly. Your body will produce them whenever it needs them, so we can’t quite tell how many there are at any given time. But it’s important to remember that endocannabinoids are produced by your body, whereas cannabinoids are found outside your body.
From your head to your toes, endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout your body. They’re a primary component within the ECS because endocannabinoids bind to these receptors in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action. If this sounds at all confusing, just think of endocannabinoid receptors like you would a football player; they receive signals from endocannabinoids and prepare to initiate a response.
There are two endocannabinoid receptors worth noting:
- CB1 receptors are mostly found in your central nervous system
- CB2 receptors are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system
Endocannabinoids can bind to either of these receptors with ease. Yet the effects of this binding will vary depending on where the receptor is located within the body, and which endocannabinoid is binding to the receptor. For instance, an endocannabinoid might bind with a CB1 receptor in the spine to signal pain relief. A different endocannabinoid, on the other hand, might bind to the same receptor to signal inflammation.
The sole duty of enzymes is to break down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their job. Once the endocannabinoid has performed as your body intended, it can be destroyed by enzymes to ensure it doesn’t cause any problems.
Functions of the ECS
Now that we’ve broken down the primary components of the ECS, it’s time to discuss this system’s many functions. While we haven’t yet determined everything the ECS is capable of, research has linked the ECS to the following processes:
- Learning & Memory
- Chronic Pain
- Liver Function
- Bone growth
- Muscle Formation
- Appetite & Digestion
Each of these functions contribute to what we know as homeostasis. You may remember hearing that word in your high school biology or anatomy class. To give you a brief refresher, homeostasis is your body’s ability to maintain a stable internal environment. For instance, if an injury throws off your body’s homeostasis, the ECS will jump into action and help your body return to normalcy. Researchers now believe this is the primary role of the ECS.
THC & the ECS
You may now be wondering where cannabis comes into this conversation. What does a complex system in your body have anything to do with the feel-good drug we know and love?
Let’s start by talking a bit more about tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. We know by now that THC is the magic stuff in cannabis that gets you high, but it’s also a cannabinoid much like the ones we’ve discussed above.
Once in your body, THC binds to those bodily receptors just like an endocannabinoid would. Yet unlike most of your endocannabinoids, THC can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors. This gives THC the opportunity to produce a wide range of effects on your body and mind, some of which are desirable and others that aren’t. For example, THC can help reduce feelings of pain and encourage a healthy appetite, but it can also cause paranoia or anxiety.
When you head to the dispensary looking for cannabis, the budtender will often talk of the many different effects produced by different strains of weed. Some strains will work with your peripheral nervous system by producing what we call a “body high,” while other strains will produce a “head high.” The type of high you’re most likely to experience depends on how and where the THC will bind with the many receptors in your ECS.
CBD & the ECS
The other cannabinoid we often hear of is cannabidiol, or CBD for short. Unlike THC, CBD won’t get you high or produce those unwanted effects associated with THC.
Yet CBD is a rather interesting cannabinoid simply because researchers don’t yet know how it interacts with your ECS. Some believe it simply stops other endocannabinoids from breaking down via enzymes, thus ensuring the effects of different endocannabinoids last longer within your body. Others believe CBD binds with receptors in your body that haven’t yet been discovered.
No matter how it interacts with your body, research has suggested that CBD can help with pain, nausea, or other symptoms associated with various conditions.
Some researchers believe in a theory known as endocannabinoid deficiency, or CECD. This theory suggests that low endocannabinoid levels in your body or any form of ECS dysfunction can lead to the development of other conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraines, or irritable bowel syndrome.
These conditions are so puzzling because they don’t have a single underlying cause, and many of them occur alongside others. Because we don’t yet know if CECD can be treated by targeting the ECS, research is still ongoing.
The Beauty of Your Endocannabinoid System
Your ECS is a rather wonderful system indeed. By maintaining homeostasis within the body via complex receptors, the ECS acts as the primary point of internal care when your body needs it most. Just as important, it also interacts with cannabinoids like THC and CBD to provide relief and relaxation for your body and mind. While we don’t yet understand all the intricacies of this complex system, in time it could hold the key to treatment for several widespread conditions.