If you’ve been searching the internet for information on marijuana-based products like CBD oils or THC gummies, chances are you’ve probably come across the term’ endocannabinoid system.’ The existence of this system is relatively new to the medical community, with research only starting in the early 90s.
Although there isn’t much research out there, most of it agrees that the endocannabinoid system is vital to our survival and controls many essential bodily functions that can significantly impact our lives, especially our mental health.
If this subject interests you, keep reading to learn more about the endocannabinoid system and how it works!
How Does It Work?
Well, to figure that one out, let’s start with what it is. The Endocannabinoid system (or ECS for short) is complex made up of three main components: endocannabinoids, endocannabinoid receptors, and enzymes.
The Endocannabinoid System helps to regulate a lot of vital bodily functions, including:
- Changes in general mood
- Sleep cycles
- Reproduction and fertility
Although endocannabinoids sound like weed, they’re not. These are tiny molecules produced by your own body! They’re also structurally similar to cannabinoids which can be found in the cannabis plant. This is why they share similarities in their name.
The endocannabinoids produced by your body work hard to regulate the functions that we mentioned previously. They make sure that these body functions run smoothly so that you sleep well, feel good, have a healthy appetite, and can reproduce!
And for all that, you can thank these two: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). These are the two main endocannabinoids that work tirelessly to ensure you sleep through the night and are hungry for lunch every day.
Now, let’s talk about our second component: endocannabinoid receptors. These are tiny cells that can be found throughout your body.
In general receptors, the job is to receive stimuli (which can be anything from a sound to a sensation) and then translate those stimuli into a message that can be sent up to your brain to process the information and act accordingly.
Endocannabinoid receptors themselves are designed to receive (or ‘bind to’) endocannabinoids and turn those into a message that the Endocannabinoid System needs to start doing its job. They’re the secretaries who send e-mails reminding the boss to write progress reports or sign contracts, except that instead of doing that, they tell your system to get your body to go to sleep or start feeling hungry.
The ones who run the show are these two receptors:
The CB1 receptor is located in the central nervous system, which, if you didn’t pay attention in science class, is the brain and the spinal cord. The central nervous is primarily responsible for brain functions like thoughts and controlling the parts of your body and body functions like walking and exercising.
Endocannabinoids usually tie themselves to the CB1 receptor to relieve pain. So, when you hit your knee, and it doesn’t hurt that hard, you can think of these guys for that.
The CB2 receptors, on the other hand, is located in the peripheral nervous system, which (if you still didn’t pay attention in science class) is the one that has all the nerves connected to the other parts of your body like your lungs, your skin, and your limbs. Think of the peripheral nervous system as a network of cable lines that all conjoin in one place: your brain. Because of this, it’s the job of the peripheral nervous system to send messages from your other organs to your brain.
Endocannabinoids often bind themselves to the CB2 receptor when they want to lower inflammation. Ever feel like parts of your body are swollen after working out? That’s because exercise takes a lot of hard work, which causes parts of your body, like your muscles, to swell up. In response, your body produces a lot of endocannabinoids to get the swelling to go down and for you to feel much better.
And last but not least, we have our final big player: enzymes! Enzymes are the clean-up crew of the endocannabinoid system. Once the endocannabinoids are done reminding the ECS that it has to do its job getting you to fall asleep, these enzymes come in and break down those endocannabinoids since they’ve already completed their primary task.
And each endocannabinoid gets the specialized enzyme that cleans it up afterward. AEA has a fatty acid named amide hydrolase, and 2-AG is often cleaned up by monoacylglycerol acid lipase (try to say that five times fast!)
All of these components work together to keep you sleeping better, feeling more confident, having a healthy appetite, and ready to have a baby if you choose to.
But what else can the endocannabinoid system do? Keep reading to find out!
The Endocannabinoid System Structure and Its Function
We already discussed in length what the structure of the endocannabinoid system is like, but, just as a quick refresher, ECS is made up of:
- Endocannabinoids: the junior secretaries that remind the system to do its job.
- Receptors: the senior secretaries receive the messages and send them up to the big boss, also known as your brain.
- Enzymes: the clean-up crew that gets rid of the junior secretaries once they’ve done their job.
Now, we dived a little bit into the endocannabinoid system’s functions, but there’s a lot more that we didn’t discuss. Research is still in its early stages, but most experts agree that the ECS is responsible for managing:
- Chronic pain
- Inflammation and other immune systems (which is how your body fights off viruses and other diseases)
- Sleep cycles
- General mood and disposition
- Moto control (so how you move your muscles and your limbs)
- Heart health
- Digestion and appetite
- Both long and short-term memory as well retention of knowledge
- Muscle growth
- Bone growth
- Functions of the reproductive system
- Functions of the liver (if you drink a lot of alcohol, you may want to start paying attention)
- Skin and nerve functions (like feeling pleasure and pain)
According to Healthline, “These functions all contribute to homeostasis, which refers to the stability of your internal environment.” So, when life makes you unstable (by giving you a cold or making you hit your head on the cabinet above the sink,) the ECS gets to work right away to regulate those areas so you can start feeling better!
Although research into the ECS is still in its very early stages, this is rapidly changing. According to a research paper published in 2005, the ECS “now appears as a relevant modulator of physiological functions not only in the central nervous system but also in the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine network, the immune system, the gastrointestinal tract, the reproductive system and in microcirculation.”
Alright, now that you have a degree in Human Biology, let’s get into the fun stuff: weed.
The Cannabis plant is most often associated with weed, joints, and Snoop Dogg, but this tropical plant has many benefits other than getting you high.
The Cannabis plant contains many different chemical components, called ‘cannabinoids,’ chemical structures similar to the endocannabinoids your body naturally produces.
Although these cannabinoids may all look the same, they’re all vastly different, and they all have other effects on your body. THC (or Tetrahydrocannabinol) is the chemical component in cannabis that makes you high. This is the chemical responsible for making movies funny and giving you those grand realizations about the universe, as well as the sudden need to eat cookies at three o’clock in the morning.
But THC isn’t the cannabinoid in the cannabis plant, far from it. CBD (which is short for cannabidiol) is a beautiful chemical that does not make you high. Instead, CBD can have a lot of health benefits, including:
- Better sleep
- Increased attention span
- Reducing negative thoughts
- Growing feelings of happiness and liberation
- Improving focus
CBD has also been shown to reduce pain, decrease inflammation and even help with seizures, which is why it is often given to patients who suffer from chronic pain or get seizures. This is why many people with Duvet syndrome or scoliosis use CBD as an alternative form of treatment.
A lot of questions may be running through your head right now; most of them probably think: ‘huh?’, ‘what?’, and ‘what does this have to do with the endocannabinoid system?’
Well, let’s go back to biology class. As you know, human bodies are made of billions of tiny structures called cells. Each of these cells is like a bit of powerhouse inside your body, doing several things, from waving off diseases to keeping you warm. To achieve these functions, cells need a lot of energy, like a train engine powered by carbon.
Cells are very similar, but instead of burning carbon, they burn what are called ‘lipids,’ essentially fatty acids found in many foods that we eat.
So, to sum up, lipid metabolism is when the cells in your body burn through lipids (which are all types of fatty acids) to have the energy to keep you active and healthy!
But what does this have to do with the endocannabinoid system? Well, according to a 2018 research paper published by Chad A. Sallaberry and Laurie Astern called “The Endocannabinoid System, our universal regulator”: “The ECS runs through fatty tissue, demonstrating its role in adipogenesis, lipogenesis, and glucose uptake, Cannabinoids are unique in that they are rapidly synthesized as well as broken down soon after being used, which creates fewer long-term side effects.”
What does that mean? The ECS does a process that is very similar to lipid metabolism by breaking down enzymes, as we mentioned previously. The thing is that this breakdown process also means that there are considerably fewer side effects to taking cannabinoids (such as CBD or THC) because they tend to be short-lasting since they’re broken down so quickly.
In simpler terms: the endocannabinoid system breaks things down quickly, so you don’t have to worry too much about side effects when trying out cannabis-based products. Of course, you should always ask your doctor or primary healthcare physician before trying any of these products on the safe side.
How Does THC Interact with the ECS?
This is the bit you’re probably most interested in hearing. It’s pretty fascinating. As we said before, THC is the compound in the cannabis plant which can make you high, but did you know that the way it does that is by interacting with your endocannabinoid system?
Remember the receptors we mentioned previously, CB1 and CB2? The ones located in your nervous systems? Well, when THC enters your body, it binds to these receptors and can therefore send some exciting messages up to your brain, causing all kinds of groovy sensations.
This is why users of THC products report:
- Feeling less stressed out
- Feeling more relaxed
- Having a greater appreciation for the world around them
- Being more creative and coming up with new ideas
- Opening up their minds to new and exciting possibilities
- Feeling less physical pain
- Feeling less anxiety
This is why marihuana is currently being used more and more in the medical field. The pain-reducing effect on patients is almost equal to that of pain killers like opioids, which can be highly addictive. Because of this, THC-based products can provide a healthier, natural alternative to opioids which can cause people to become addicted and end up seeking harsher, more destructive drugs.
Of course, it is essential to keep in mind that THC is one of the more potent cannabis compounds out there, and it can have side effects such as paranoia and increased anxiety. This is why you should always ask your doctor before trying any of these products to see if THC is right for you.
There is also the question of legality. While marihuana is currently becoming legal in more and more states, many have strict anti-marijuana laws. Regulations can also change depending on which district you’re in. Research your district’s marihuana laws before purchasing any products.
How Does CBD Interact With the ECS?
This is an exciting process as well. CBD, unlike THC, does not make you high, which means that you get all sorts of great health benefits without the fear of side effects like paranoia and anxiety! Most patients have significant reactions to CBD and report having very mild side effects or none at all, which is excellent news for those who are looking for a safer alternative to THC.
So how does CBD work with your endocannabinoid system? Well, because research is relatively new, experts are still having heated debates about this. However, the consensus seems to be that CBD is very different from THC because it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors.
Instead, what CBD does is work with enzymes. Remember the ones we mentioned before? The crew? Well, CBD enters your body like an inspector and tells the clean-up crew to slow down their work. This allows enzymes to break down to last for much longer, which prolongs the feeling of pain relief.
This is precisely why many athletes worldwide use topical CBD products like salves or creams to treat areas of their hurt or swollen bodies. The CBD goes to work right away, telling the enzymes to slow down, ensuring that the swelling goes down and stays down for much longer or that the person feels less pain for an extended period.
ECS and Mental Health
As we’ve talked about before, the ECS can regulate many necessary bodily functions, but it can also have a significant impact on your mental health.
Now more than ever, many people are being open about struggling with neurological disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and many others. Removing the stigma around these conditions is excellent, but it still means that many people have to deal with them, and sometimes the ‘why isn’t all that clear.
But today, some researchers may have an answer. According to a book published this year titled ‘Neurotherapeutics in the Era of Translational Medicine,’ “a lack of adequate endocannabinoid activity could be a key contributing factor to many debilitating conditions, including neurological disorders.”
This means that people who suffer from anxiety and depression may be doing so because their ECS isn’t functioning correctly and can’t regulate all their fears and daily stresses, which causes them to be exacerbated. The book goes on to say that “[the] enhancement of the ECS may lead to the prevention of these conditions and perhaps can be of therapeutic value as well.”
This is where CBD comes in! CBD can enhance the endocannabinoid system by slowing down the breaking down of enzymes, which can have substantial positive effects on people with mental health issues.
What About Endocannabinoid System Deficiency?
This condition sounds scary, but it can affect a considerable number of people. Researchers have found that people who have insomnia, depression, anxiety, and irregular appetite are experiencing the symptoms of ECS deficiency.
Like all other systems in our body, the Endocannabinoid System is not perfect and can sometimes have some trouble. ECS deficiency happens when the endocannabinoid system is not working as it should, which can occur for several reasons, from extra stress in daily life to other diseases weakening the endocannabinoid system.
But because the ECS is so new to the scientific community, people are rarely diagnosed with this condition and are often mistaken for having depression or anxiety.
So, how can you fix it? Well, one way is to re-activate the ECS by re-introducing cannabinoids into your body, like THC and CBD. These cannabinoids can work with your ECS to fix the problems and get it working well again! Of course, you should always ask your doctor before trying any form of cannabis to see if it’s right for you.
The Bottom Line
The truth is that although research into the endocannabinoid system may be new, the results are promising. More and more studies detailing the positive effects that both THC and CBD can have on this system and people’s lives, in general, are coming out each day, and that is excellent news for people who have been struggling for a long time.
Traditional medicinal treatments are great, and they can still be very effective, but they’re not always available to everyone, and sometimes, they can even be addictive. That’s why many people are now turning to CBD and THC to take care of their endocannabinoid system more safely and naturally.