Modern medical research into the effects of cannabis has revealed that its organic compounds, known collectively as cannabinoids, have possibly dozens of therapeutic uses, from treating anxiety to pain and beyond. But why do these cannabinoids work so well in the first place? The truth may be surprising: our bodies have biological systems that are designed, specifically, respond to these organic compounds. It’s called the endocannabinoid system, and here’s what you need to know about it.
The endocannabinoid system is present in humans in the form of neuromodulatory receptors, specialized forms of neuroreceptors that are designed to bind to cannabinoids within the human body. The system has a role in regulating the brain, the nervous system, and a number of vital organs, and just about all animals, vertebrates and invertebrates alike, have an endocannabinoid system in one form or another that helps in this regulation.
Research into the endocannabinoid system has been ongoing for decades, with the first true breakthroughs occurring in the 1990s. Scientists looking to discover how THC, the cannabinoid responsible for the psychoactive properties of cannabis, interacted specifically with the human body, only to discover that the central and peripheral nervous system of the human body harbored a highly complex network of these neuroreceptors.
The Components of the Endocannabinoid System
There are three main components of the endocannabinoid system, each of which plays a specific role. These components include the following:
These are organic compounds that can bind to and activate the cannabinoid receptors in the human body. These molecules are called “endo” cannabinoids because the human body naturally produces these cells, which differentiates it from THC and other plant-based, or phytocannabinoids. The role endocannabinoids play in the human body is still being researched, but what has become clear is that they are involved in providing homeostasis. The human body needs to be maintained very carefully to function properly. If our internal body temperature is too hot or too cold, for example, we cease to function, and homeostasis is the term for this biological balancing act.
There are a number of endocannabinoids that have been discovered so far. Two of the ones we understand the most about are known as anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (or 2AG). Anandamide plays an important physiological role in regulating inflammation and neuron signaling, but it also affects mood, making it a natural antidepressant. 2AG, meanwhile, is a highly abundant within the body and is associated with regulating the immune system.
Without cannabinoid receptors within your body, there would be no place for all those endocannabinoids to bond to. Receptors are present throughout nearly every biological system in the human body, though there are different types in different locations. All types of cannabinoids, both endocannabinoids as well as phytocannabinoids, are designed expressly to fit into these receptors. Doing so completing something akin to an electrical circuit, which then triggers a biological function to occur.
There are two main types of receptors that have been discovered so far. Known as CB1 and CB2, they play different and specialized roles. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the central and peripheral nervous systems and are tied to regulating sleep, pain response, appetite, and related homeostatic functions. This includes anxiety and depression. CB2 receptors, meanwhile, are most often found present in the body’s immune system. Their role, as scientists understand currently, is primarily to trigger the release of cytokines, which are immunomodulators that are crucial in regulating your body’s immune response.
Metabolic enzymes are organic compounds that play an important role in homeostasis. Their job, within the body, is to regulate metabolic pathways in energy homeostasis. Metabolic enzymes are designed to reduce the amount of other compounds in the body to preserve that homeostasis; an example of such an enzyme would be lactase, which plays a role in breaking down lactose in dairy products into less complex sugars that can then be processed by the body.
In the endocannabinoid system, there are two main enzymes that are used to break down endocannabinoids into their component parts once they’ve done their job. One is known as fatty acid amide hydrolase (or FAAH), and it’s tasked with breaking down anandamide once it’s done bonding with a cannabinoid receptor so it can be used once more. The other, monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), is used by the body to clean up 2AG for the same purpose.
The Endocannabinoid System and Illness
With the endocannabinoid system playing a role in homeostasis, it stands to reason that many illnesses are tied closely to problems with this system. With the endocannabinoid system regulating so many specific things such as inflammation, pain, and anxiety, research is ongoing to determine what physiological contributions the endocannabinoid system might make chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, for example.
An example of this is the function of the endocannabinoid anandamide breaks down quickly in the body, as its metabolic enzyme, FAAH, is known to work quickly. However, FAAH levels may be too high in a dysregulated endocannabinoid system, resulting in anandamide breaking down too quickly before it can do its job. This can disrupt homeostasis and, in this case, lead to mood imbalances that can contribute to conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Supporting the Endocannabinoid System
The more we learn about the endocannabinoid system, the better we can treat physiological disorders tied to it. Continuing the above example of having levels heightened levels of FAAH, for example, there are natural ways to inhibit FAAH and therefore increase anandamide levels. Unsurprisingly, these FAAH inhibitors which can sometimes be found in cannabidol (CBD) products, which are produced from extracting the phytocannabinoids from cannabis plants.
Using CBD products in this manner shows great potential in helping the endocannabinoid system maintain homeostasis in the body, but there is much we need to learn. More research will need to be done on how to better support the endocannabinoid system for better overall health, and there are high hopes that medical researchers around the world continue to delve into the secrets of the endocannabinoid system in the future.