An Overview of the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is an exciting area of science with relevance to diverse fields, including neuroscience, psychopharmacology, and endocrinology, to name a few. And the endocannabinoid system may be one of the reasons why our body has been able to cope with so many different situations through evolution.
In this article, we will review the endocannabinoid system, how does it work, and what are its main functions that we know of now? Keep reading to learn more!
WHAT IS THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) has increasingly been recognized as one of the most essential neuromodulatory systems in the human brain. Despite its relatively recent discovery, it plays a crucial role in various physiological processes. It was identified in the early 1990s by people researching THC, a very well-known cannabinoid (compounds also found in cannabis). The ECS is not a single pathway but is a complex network of cell-to-cell communication that relies on several neurotransmitters, enzymes, and other chemicals to maintain balance within the body.
In contrast to other neurotransmitters, ECS is rapidly degraded after its release by membrane-localized enzymes and, therefore, acts as molecular on-off switches. Your endocannabinoid system plays a role in regulating sleep, mood, appetite, and memory functions. And it exists and is active in your body even if you don’t use cannabis.
In other words, the endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis — basically, a balanced internal environment — which is why it’s sometimes called the body’s “master regulator.”
The Endocannabinoid System is an essential physiological system found in all mammals.
We’re not sure exactly how many cannabinoid receptors there are in your body, but estimates range around 100. This number greatly exceeds the actual number of cannabinoids found in nature.
It seems that at least one cannabinoid receptor exists for every single phytocannabinoid (cannabinoids from plants). Therefore, phytocannabinoids like THC trigger natural cannabinoid receptors to produce effects like euphoria or pain relief in your mind. These effects are at least partly responsible for the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
HOW DOES THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM WORK?
The endocannabinoid system is a network of cannabinoid receptors and the neurotransmitters that bind to them. The ECS comprises various cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) and their endogenous lipid ligands (endocannabinoids). It plays a vital role in various body functions, including pain sensation, appetite, memory, and mood. There are cannabinoid receptors all over the body, including the central nervous system, immune system, gastrointestinal tract, and peripheral nervous system. The cannabinoids produced by the body stimulate these receptors.
The two major endocannabinoids are Anandamide (AEA) and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). The endocannabinoids activate their G-protein coupled CB1 and CB2 receptor counterparts. Anandamide is found throughout your brain, central nervous system, and other organs. Anandamide was discovered in 1992. Scientists named it after the Sanskrit word “ananda,” which means bliss or delight. They were describing how anandamide made them feel while they were researching it. When one of these endocannabinoids binds to its receptor, it sends a message to your cells, telling them what to do. For example, if you have too much of the neurotransmitter serotonin, anandamide may bind to its receptor to say to a cell to stop producing more serotonin. The endocannabinoid system has a balancing effect on your body because it is responsible for balancing how chemicals, like neurotransmitters, interact with each other.
WHAT ARE THE FUNCTIONS OF THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM?
The endocannabinoid system is a collection of cell receptors and corresponding molecules involved in regulating appetite, immune function, inflammation, pain sensation, mood, memory, and fertility.
The ECS is responsible for regulating many parts of your body that you’re probably familiar with and some that are less familiar. For example, the endocannabinoid system helps regulate your heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature. It also plays a role in digestion and metabolism and can affect your memory.
Unfortunately, this system is very complicated. Researchers haven’t yet determined exactly how it works or all of its potential functions. This research has linked the ECS to appetite and digestion, metabolism, chronic pain, learning and memory, liver function, stress response systems, and even emotional responses like fear and pleasure. These are all important aspects of homeostasis (the maintenance of balanced internal conditions), which is the primary role of the ECS today.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM AND THC?
The ECS is in charge of many bodily functions, including appetite, sleep, and immune function. It also has a significant role in pain management, making it an appealing target for medical research into cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most well-known cannabinoid found in cannabis and responsible for many psychoactive effects. The THC cannabinoid interacts directly with our CB1 receptors and produces the euphoric high that marijuana users experience. However, there are over 100 other cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant, and they all interact differently with our bodies.
CBD is the most common non-psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, and while THC directly activates CB1, CBD does not. The effect of CBD on the ECS is not yet fully understood. But we do know that it does not bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors like THC does. Instead, CBD is thought to inhibit a family of enzymes called FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase). These enzymes break down anandamide, one of our body’s naturally produced endocannabinoids which are very similar in molecular structure to CBD. This is why CBD can be such a potent anti-inflammatory and analgesic agent without any psychoactive effects.
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