What is the Endocannibinoid System?

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Ever wonder how cannabinoids interact with your body? The answer is through the endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating balance in our body’s immune response, appetite, metabolism, memory, and more. In spite of the integral role this system takes on, until recently it remained an unknown part of the human body’s functions.

Named for the plant that inspired its discovery, the endocannabinoid system’s importance is only just becoming understood by the medical community. It is through this system that the naturally occurring cannabinoids from medical cannabis interact with our bodies and trigger their beneficial effects. With the potential to greatly affect the way our body’s work, it is essential that we recognize how to maintain a healthy endocannabinoid system.

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What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is made up of several integrated mechanisms:

  • enzymes responsible for creating and destroying cannabinoids
  • receptor sites on cells to receive cannabinoids (CB1 and CB2)
  • the endocannabinoids themselves (compounds that are naturally produced by the human body).

Together, these mechanisms are predominantly responsible for regulating body processes and functions. Endocannabinoids interact with the CB1 and CB2 receptor sites with the goal of helping the body achieve homeostasis, or equilibrium2.

CB1 and CB2 receptors respond differently, respectively, to different cannabinoids. CB1receptors, most prevalent in the central nervous system, are linked to modulating stress, anxiety, appetite, and nausea, immune system balance, and even the inhibition of tumors1,4,10. CB2 receptors, found mostly on cells in the immune system, seem to dominate in fighting inflammation and damage to tissue11. Some cells can even contain both types of receptors, each responsible for a different function.

Phytocannabinoids, which are compounds found in the seeds, stalk and flower of cannabis, also interact with the cannabinoid receptors6,8. The most common cannabinoids found in cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound known to produce a high, and cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound.

While the endocannabinoid system is linked to a number of important processes and is concentrated in the brain, nervous system, and reproductive organs, it has shown not to affect the regions of the brain that control heart and lung function. This is one of the main reasons that fatal overdoses of cannabinoids do not occur7.

The History of the Endocannabinoid System

Through the 19th century, in the United States extractions of the cannabis plant were widely used for a number of medicinal purposes. Fearing the abuse of Cannabis’s psychoactive properties, the federal government prohibited the cannabis plant in 1937. This prevented the plant from being use recreationally, medicinally and in research, which ending up stalling the progress of our understanding of the endocannabinoid system and the possible therapeutic properties. For nearly 50 years, Cannabis was dropped from popular pharmacopeia and labeled as illicit in the minds of most Americans.

In the early 1990’s, however, Lisa Matsuda and her team at the National Institute of Mental Health first identified a THC-sensitive receptor in the brains of rats. Following this revelation, the National Academy of Science predicted the 1990’s would be the “Decade of the Brain”. It turned out to be true, as the following 10-year period would produce “more advances in neuroscience than in all previous years combined”5.

Since then, scientists have labored to learn as much as they can about the endocannabinoid system, our naturally occurring cannabinoids, and the ways cannabis alters this balance, publishing over 20,000 scientific studies referencing cannabinoids in just the last two decades.

How Does the Endocannabinoid System Affect my Health?

Since discovering the endocannabinoid system and its parts, researchers have worked to further understand how the endocannabinoid system may be used therapeutically to decrease pain, fight cancer, prevent neurodegenerative diseases, and promote health. Overall, research indicates that the endocannabinoid system helps regulate the body’s immune and central nervous systems and ensure they are running correctly.

One theory about how the endocannabinoid system relates to our overall health is an “endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome,” which speculates that for some people, the body does not generate enough endocannabinoids13. This concept further speculates that the deficiency could be the root cause of many autoimmune disorders, including migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and more.

Overall, significant research must still be done to better understand the impact of the endocannabinoid system on our overall health, and how supplementing our natural endocannabinoid production with plant-based cannabinoids may play a significant therapeutic role in our health.

As we learn more about the endocannabinoid system, we will also learn about the potential for compounds from cannabis, like THC, CBD, and more, to be used therapeutically. Finding ways to modulate the endocannabinoid system’s activity opens pathways to an amazingly disparate set of chronic diseases and disorders9. This includes difficult conditions like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and even cancer.

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References:

  1. Akirav, I. (2011) Role of the endocannabinoid system in anxiety and stress-related disorders, Anxiety Disorders. InTech Open. Retrieved from http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/17314/InTech-Role_of_the_endocannabinoid_system_in_anxiety_and_stress_related_disorders.pdf
  2. Alger, B.E. (2013, November-December). Getting High on the Endocannabinoid System. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2013, 14.
  3. Gertsch, J., Pertwee, R.G., and Di Marzo, V. (2010). Phytocannabinoids beyond the Cannabis plant – do they exist? British Journal of Pharmacology, 160(3), 523–529.
  4. Kogan, N.M., and Mechoulam, R. (2007). Cannabinoids in health and disease. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 9(4), 413–430.
  5. Lee, M. (2012). The Discovery of the endocannabinoid system. Beyond THC. Retrieved from http://www.beyondthc.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/eCBSystemLee.pdf
  6. Mandal, A. (2014, June 14). Phytocannabinoids. News Medical. Retrieved from http://www.news-medical.net/health/Phytocannabinoids.aspx
  7. National Cancer Institute. (2016, December 8). Cannabis and cannabinoids. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/cannabis-pdq#section/_11
  8. Pacher, P., Batkai, S., and Kunos, G. (2006). The Endocannabinoid System as an Emerging Target of Pharmacotherapy. Pharmacological Reviews, 58(3), 389–462.
  9. Pacher, P., and Kunos, G. (2013). Modulating the endocannabinoid system in human health and disease: successes and failures. The FEBS Journal, 280(9), 1918–1943.
  10. Pagotto, U., Vicennati, V., and Pasquali, R. (2005). The endocannabinoid system and the treatment of obesity. Annals of Medicine. 37(4), 270-5.
  11. Pandey, R., Mousawy, K., Nagarkatti, M., & Nagarkatti, P. (2009). Endocannabinoids and immune regulation. Pharmacological Research: The Official Journal of the Italian Pharmacological Society, 60(2), 85–92.
  12. Ruehle, S., Rey, A.A., Remmers, F., and Lutz, B. (2012). The endocannabinoid system in anxiety, fear memory and habituation. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 26(1), 23–39.
  13. Smith, S., and Wagner, M. (2014) Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) revisited: can this concept explain the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions. Neuro Endocrinol Letters. 35(3), 198-201.
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