What is the Endocannabinoid System

What is the Endocannabinoid System, and What Role Does it Play?

As you read articles on the functions of CBD or cannabinoids, one thing becomes clear: the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The search for how the cannabis plant works and has such therapeutic effects led scientists to discover the ECS.

Subsequently, researchers have been studying this system and the role it plays in the human body. The ECS interacts with cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

Beyond its interaction with these compounds, it carries out important body functions. Let’s look at the ECS, its components, and its role in bodily functions.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

Researchers discovered the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the 1990s. It’s a complex signaling system in the human body and other vertebrates. The Endocannabinoid system is short for the endogenous cannabinoid system. Endogenous means it’s naturally produced within our bodies.

This system isn’t only a natural part of us. It’s also an essential one.

The ECS regulates different processes, including mood, sleep, appetite, cognition, and fertility. This system exists in our bodies, and it’s active whether you use cannabis or not.

Despite the crucial role the ECS plays in the human body, it was discovered less than 30 years ago.

Here’s a brief history that led to the discovery of the ECS:

Mid 1960s: An Israeli researcher, Raphael Mechoulam (Ph.D.), and his colleagues discovered CBD and THC as active cannabinoids. Following this discovery, scientists began to study the clinical effects of these cannabinoids. They would also study their pharmacology and biochemistry. But, they couldn’t tell how these compounds exerted their effects.

1988: Allyn Howlett (Ph.D.), and her team at St. Louis University lab in Missouri, discovered cannabinoid receptors in rat brains. They used a radiolabeling technique, which helped them identify affinity binding sites.

1990: Scientists cloned the CB1 receptor in rats and humans without failing.

1992: Dr. Mechoulam’s research led him to discover anandamide.

 1993: A Cambridge University researcher successfully cloned the CB2 receptor.

1995: Dr. Mechoulam’s lab discovered 2-arachidonoglycerol, 2-AG.

These discoveries led to the surge in exploring the endocannabinoid system.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System Made Of?

The endocannabinoid system has three components, namely:

  • Endocannabinoids
  • Receptors
  • Enzymes

Endocannabinoids: These are endogenous cannabinoids that our bodies make. They are similar to external cannabinoids like CBD and THC. However, the difference is our bodies produce these ones when we need them.

Two known endocannabinoids are:

  • 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
  • anandamide (AEA)

Receptors: These receptors are present throughout our bodies. When endocannabinoids bind to the receptors, a signal is sent to our ECS to carry out a function.

The two main receptors we have are CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptors are predominant in the central nervous system. CB2 receptors are mostly present in the peripheral nervous system, particularly immune cells. Experts hypothesize that we might have a third undiscovered cannabinoid receptor.

When an endocannabinoid binds to a receptor, there is an effect. This effect depends on which endocannabinoid the receptor interacts with and the location of the receptor. For instance, an endocannabinoid might bind to the CB1 receptors in your spinal nerve for pain relief.

Enzymes: The role of these enzymes is to break down the endocannabinoids after they’ve performed their tasks.

Two major enzymes include:

  • Monoacylyglycerolacid lipase (MAG-L): This enzyme breaks down 2-AG
  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH): This enzyme breaks down AEA

What Does the Endocannabinoid System Do?

Researchers are yet to determine the potential functions of the endocannabinoid system. ECS is complex, and there is only a little knowledge of how it works. Experts discovered the endocannabinoid system works to maintain homeostasis. So, it ensures balance in our internal environment no matter what is going on.

For instance, an external force such as fever throws the body outside its normal state. The role of the ECS is to help the body get back to its ideal state. So, when something is happening out of its normal range, the ECS works to correct that.

The endocannabinoid system is involved in the regulation of different processes, namely:

  • Immune responses
  • Metabolism
  • Appetite and digestion
  • Pain modulation
  • Mood
  • Reproductive functions
  • Stress
  • Memory and learning
  • Temperature regulation
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Neuroprotection

All these functions contribute to stabilizing the body’s internal environment. When our body activates the ECS, it does that with exactness.

So the endocannabinoid system carries out only the needed task without disrupting other functions. For example, if your temperature is out of range, the ECS regulates it without interrupting your immune function.

Once the endocannabinoids have performed their role to regulate your temperature, certain enzymes break them down. This prevents them from going beyond the precise task.Endocannabinoid

What Is Endocannabinoid Deficiency?

Some researchers believe a theory called the Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD). This theory implies that a low level of endocannabinoids in the body or ECS dysfunction can cause disease conditions.

There was a 2016 review of over ten years of study on this topic. The article suggests that this theory could explain why people have conditions like:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraine
  • Seizure disorders
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

These diseases do not have an underlying cause and are often resistant to treatments. Also, they usually involve more than one system. It adds up when you look at the ECS and all the areas they regulate.

Take fibromyalgia, for instance. This condition involves the endocrine, immune, digestive, central and peripheral nervous systems.

We’re still in the early stages of understanding endocannabinoid deficiency. So, more research is needed on this subject. However, if CECD plays a role in certain conditions, targeting the endocannabinoid system could be an effective treatment.

Supporting the Endocannabinoid System with Hemp

The body produces its own endocannabinoids. However, we have many cannabinoids present in hemp and cannabis plants. These plants are of high interest to researchers due to the therapeutic effects of their cannabinoids.

Two more researched cannabinoids, amongst others, are CBD and THC. CBD is short for cannabidiol, while THC means tetrahydrocannabinol. These cannabinoids interact with the ECS to produce effects similar to endocannabinoids. Thus, they might help bring the body back to balance.

THC produces the high people associate with the cannabis plant. However, CBD is non-intoxicating, so it won’t get the consumer high.

Because of its non-intoxicating effect, CBD has been a welcome option for many. People are looking into natural treatment options for diseases. And studies suggest that cannabinoids may help treat various conditions, including:

  • Pain
  • Inflammation
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Seizures
  • Sleep problems
  • Nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy

Research shows that these Phytocannabinoids can interact with the ECS in two major ways:

  1. Directly activate the cannabinoid receptors the way endocannabinoids would.
  2. Block the enzymes from breaking down the endocannabinoids

There are different hemp-derived products, including full-spectrum CBD oils. Full-spectrum CBD products are often preferred over isolated CBD. The reason is that a full-spectrum product contains CBD, a trace amount of THC, and other cannabinoids from the hemp plant. So, it has a higher phytochemical composition.

Other Ways to Support the Endocannabinoid System

Away from hemp, there are other ways to support the endocannabinoid system. Practicing a healthy lifestyle is one such.

Various substances can mimic the activity of the ECS. You can incorporate these substances or cannabimimetic into your routine to stimulate the activity of the ECS.

Some of these substances include food items that contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 is an essential component in the formation of endocannabinoids.

Foods rich in this fatty acid include walnut, flaxseeds, and fish. Some studies even suggest that omega-3’s anti-inflammatory properties are linked to its role in supporting the ECS.

We have other foods that can support the endocannabinoid system. These include several herbs and spices. For instance, cloves and black pepper have a cannabinoid called beta-caryophyllene. This cannabinoid binds directly with the CB2 receptors and helps control inflammation.

Trace amounts of cannabimimetic and Phytocannabinoids are also present in carrots, rosemary, thyme, and hops. Truffles and dark chocolates are other foods that may improve the ECS.

Studies suggest that truffles contain high amounts of AEA, enough to activate the cannabinoid receptors. Dark chocolate is also a great choice. Cocoa beans have two compounds: N-oleoyl ethanolamine and N-linoleoyl ethanolamine.

These compounds inhibit FAAH –the enzyme that breaks down anandamide. By inhibiting it, they prolong the effects of anandamide.

Furthermore, stress is one factor that can throw the ECS out of shape. It activates enzymes that break down endocannabinoids.

Thus, one way to support your endocannabinoid system is by reducing stress. You can include practices like yoga, massage, deep breathing, and moderate exercises in your routine.

Final Thoughts

The ECS plays a vital role in maintaining balance in your internal environment. However, there’s so much to learn about it, many of which experts don’t know yet.

The ECS is a composition of endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes. All these components work hand in hand to stabilize bodily processes like mood, digestion, and metabolism. Some practices like healthy food intake and mind-body therapeutics can help support the ECS.

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