What is the endocannabinoid system?

Posted on November 13th, 2020 to hemp education

What is the endocannabinoid system? What is its role in how CBD + hemp affects our brains + bodies? In this quick-read guide, we will answer these questions and more.

CBD benefits come from the endocannabinoid system (ECS)

You have likely heard about the benefits of CBD – you probably would not be reading this if you have not!   Researchers are increasingly hopeful about proving CBD to be useful for everything from inflammation and pain to mood support.

But the question is, why and how does CBD work? And how is it that CBD can interact with our bodies? Well, it is all thanks to our trusty endocannabinoid system (ECS for short) – all mammals have one!

what is the ECS?

The endocannabinoid system comprises three key components:

  • cannabinoid receptors
  • endocannabinoids
  • metabolic enzymes

understanding the ECS: the 3 key components

1. the cannabinoid receptors

All cannabinoids – whether our own or those from a plant – affect us. Cannabinoids act like a “key” that “unlocks” the cannabinoid receptors. This essentially opens pathways that allow messages to pass from one part of the body to another.

There are two main cannabinoid receptors found within the endocannabinoid system. They are the CB1 receptors mostly found in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors, found in the peripheral nervous system and immune system.

2. the endocannabinoids

We call the body’s own cannabinoids, endocannabinoids (“endo” = “from within the body”) and their primary job is to bridge the gap between the brain and body, helping it run smoothly.

So far scientists have isolated two main endocannabinoids. The first and most well-known is anandamide: derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss. This is because anandamide regulates cognitive function, mood, and fear/anxiety reduction. The second is 2-AG which regulates appetite, immune system functions, and pain management amongst other things.

3. metabolic enzymes

The last piece of the endocannabinoid system puzzle is the metabolic enzymes. Once cannabinoids have done their job (whether from plants or the body’s own), metabolic enzymes break down the leftovers.

the history of the ECS: when was the endocannabinoid system discovered?

Our basic understanding of the human endocannabinoid system began emerging during the 1960s and 70s when scientists started investigating the effects of plant cannabinoids like CBD and THC on the human body.

By the 1980s and 90s, researchers such as Raphael Mechoulam, Allyn Howlett, and Sean Munro have isolated the different components of the human endocannabinoid system. It was also during this time in which they discovered that the human endocannabinoid system developed at the same time as our nervous systems. In fact, the more they investigated the human endocannabinoid system, the clearer it became that it plays an important role in helping our bodies stay balanced, healthy and happy.

Since then, researchers have concluded that the principal job of the endocannabinoid system is to balance, coordinate, and control a number of biological activities in the body. These include basic physiological processes like appetite, digestion and motor control, but also higher cognitive functions such as mood, memory and stress responses.

the endocannabinoid system + CBD

The fact that metabolic enzymes break down endocannabinoids is significant for two reasons. The first is that, because these metabolic enzymes break down any surplus cannabinoids, it is virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis or cannabinoid-based drugs. But the flip side of this is that it can also sometimes mean there are too little of them floating around. When this happens, the endocannabinoid system cannot maintain homeostasis, potentially causing the body to get sick.

In fact, researchers now believe that a lack of endocannabinoids may be at the heart of many, if not most, health issues we suffer from. They call this a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome and also why they are now focusing on the Endocannabinoid system as a prime target site for drug and therapeutic interventions.

how CBD oil works with the endocannabinoid system

CBD helps our bodies reach homeostasis. Although endocannabinoids and plant cannabinoids are chemically different, recent studies showed  how they interact with the endocannabinoid system is very similar. And this is where things get interesting when it comes to the endocannabinoid system and CBD.

Yoga class. Young couple are meditating and doing yoga exercises while sitting in lotus pose on a green grass in open field. Sunny morning. Meditation concept

Because CBD can interact with the endocannabinoid system in pretty much the same way as the body’s own cannabinoids do, they can help “jump start”, or reactivate the endocannabinoid system. This in turn restores the body’s state of homeostasis, putting it back into its “Goldilocks zone” where everything is just right.

CBD seems to be especially good at doing this because of its widespread influence on other systems in the body as well. Unlike other cannabinoids such as THC, for instance, CBD does not bind directly to the cannabinoid receptors, instead stimulating or inhibiting their activity.

But CBD does bind to noncannabinoid receptors, genes, ion channels and other receptor-independent pathways to produce its effects and benefits. For example, CBD can bind to the TRPV-1 receptor to help control body temperature, pain perception, and inflammation. The same goes for CBD’s ability to bind to and inhibit the cancer causing ID-1 gene.

do only humans have an endocannabinoid system?

No, it is not true that only humans that have an endocannabinoid system. Mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, and even sea urchins, all have an Endocannabinoid system. And it is now believed to have evolved almost 600 million years ago!

difference between the endocannabinoid system in humans, horses or dogs

Mostly, the endocannabinoid system does not vary much between species, but scientist have discovered one or two minor differences between humans and dogs.

One such difference is, compared to the human endocannabinoid system, studies have found the number of CB1 receptors in hindbrain structures in dogs far exceed those found in the humans. This is why THC is so toxic to dogs, and why they can suffer from a unique neurological reaction called “Static ataxia”.

There also seem to be a few differences between higher-level vertebrates like humans, horses and dogs, and lower-level vertebrates like rats and mice. Therefore, we need to be careful when trying to draw direct conclusions between data from rodent studies and how it applies to humans, horses and dogs.