Endocannabinoid System: what it is and how it works
You know that cannabis and CBD affects our bodies and minds. Perhaps you’ve heard that cannabis helps people fight insomnia, or that CBD is used to treat seizures. But do you know why it affects us?
Cannabis plants - including hemp plants - contain compounds called cannabinoids. There are dozens of these cannabinoids, but two of the most well-known ones are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These cannabinoids work by interacting with our endocannabinoid system.
Every mammal has an endocannabinoid system, whether they use cannabis or not. This system seems to influence our bodies in many different ways, and it ensures that our bodies are functioning the way they should be.
The endocannabinoid system was first identified by researchers in the 90s. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about the endocannabinoid system - but there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. As we speak, more and more research is being undertaken so that we can better understand the endocannabinoid system.
Here’s what you need to know about the endocannabinoid system and the role it plays in our bodies.
What’s in the endocannabinoid system?
So, what is this endocannabinoid system made of? Basically, it comprises of three main components: endocannabinoids, endocannabinoid receptors, and enzymes.
These are cannabinoids your body makes by itself. Researchers have found two main endocannabinoids: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG).
AEA is our body’s natural version of THC. While it’s not exactly the same as THC, it has some similarities. As this article explains, anandemide is involved in producing ‘runner’s high’ - that feeling of bliss and calm you get while running.
2-AG is our body’s natural version of CBD, although it has some similarities to THC too. It is involved in regulating mood and appetite. Both AEA and 2-AG are essential for the functioning of our body. They help regulate important bodily functions, such as our digestive system and our mood.
The endocannabinoid receptors are affected by endocannabinoids and cannabinoids. These receptors carry signals to the rest of the body, affecting various processes and organs. There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:
- CB1 receptors, which affect the central nervous system (brain and spinal column)
- CB2 receptors, which affect the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside of the brain and spinal column)
Some researchers argue that there are other receptors that we have yet to identify.
These break down the endocannabinoids after they’ve interacted with the receptors.
The importance of the endocannabinoid system
The endocannabinoid system is important because it helps maintain homeostasis - a stable internal environment within your body, where everything is running smoothly. In other words, it ensures that your body has a healthy balance of everything it needs to have.
When that healthy balance is thrown off - by illness or trauma, for example - the endocannabinoid system tries to get homeostasis back.
According to the available research, the system affects multiple functions of the body. It affects:
- Feelings of pain
- The digestive system
- Thinking skills and memory
- Mood and mental health
- The cardiovascular system
- The metabolism
- Sleeping patterns
In other words, the endocannabinoid system affects a lot of your body’s functions. While you’re going about your day, your endocannabinoid system is working with the rest of your body to make sure everything is functioning as it should.
There is some scientific research to support the idea that some people have a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency. This is a condition where your body produces fewer endocannabinoids than necessary. So far, research has suggested that this deficiency could be what causes fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and more. However, more research is needed before we can be sure that this is a thing.
How does CBD affect the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system helps our bodies maintain a healthy balance. But when that balance is thrown off, it might need a little help. This is where cannabis and CBD products come in.
Cannabis plants contain a number of different cannabinoids. Cannabinoids that are made by plants are called ‘phytocannabinoids’. We can use these phytocannabinoids to improve our health and treat certain illnesses.
Two of the most well-researched cannabinoids are CBD and THC. Both CBD and THC have health benefits, but THC is what gets people high when they use cannabis.
The endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG) seems to be similar to CBD. In other words, CBD is similar to a cannabinoid we produce inside our bodies. This doesn’t mean that our bodies naturally produce CBD, but that the endocannabinoid we do produce has a similar functions to CBD.
As mentioned before, we know that the endocannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 are affected by cannabinoids. Different cannabinoids bind to the receptors in different ways, so CBD affects the receptors differently to how THC affects them.
Scientists are still researching CBD affects the endocannabinoid system, but for now, we know that CBD has numerous health benefits. Research suggests that CBD can:
- Treat seizure disorders
- Reduce inflammation
- Soothe pain, particularly chronic pain
- Reduce anxiety and regulate mood
- Treat acne and other skin diseases
- Regulate the cardiovascular system, including blood pressure
Researchers are finding more and more uses for CBD every year, so it’s possible that CBD has more benefits than we can imagine.
What’s more is that CBD seems to be well-tolerated in humans. Even in large doses, it’s unlikely to cause side-effects. Most studies, such as this 2017 review, note that side-effects of CBD are minimal, but they usually manifest as nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Despite this relative safety, it’s important to talk to your doctor before using CBD, as it can interact with other medication. It’s also important to take the correct dosage and use a high-quality CBD brand, as some brands add harmful chemicals to their CBD. Look out for a brand where third-party testing is done on their products.
Because the endocannabinoid system is so extensive, there’s a lot scientists still don’t know. More research will be conducted on the endocannabinoid system in the future.
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