The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is the main reason cannabis has any effects on the human body at all. Weed wouldn’t get us high or provide relief if our bodies didn’t already have a biological system that interacted with its compounds. Cannabis has many compounds, but let’s focus on the cannabinoids for now.
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds produced by both mammals and plants. In mammals, they’re called endocannabinoids. When derived from the cannabis plant, they’re phytocannabinoids. They have similar chemical structures, if not identical. When our bodies are introduced to plant cannabinoids our endocannabinoid system (ECS) recognizes them as endocannabinoids.
The ESC was only recently discovered in the early 90s. Like most things related to cannabis, research is limited, leaving plenty of questions about how it functions unanswered. We do know that the ESC is comprised of endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes that help regulate a variety of biological functions such as sleep, mood, memory, appetite, reproduction, and pain sensation.
How? Well, to understand the ECS, it’s helpful to know about homeostasis. Homeostasis is your body’s way of maintaining internal stability while it adjusts to the ever-changing environment on the outside. When something is operating incorrectly, your body activates the ECS to help correct it. For example, if you’re hot and begin to sweat, that’s the ECS working to cool you down. Is your stomach growling? Your ECS is firing off signals that remind you to eat. Homeostasis is essential to our survival, so when the ECS is out of balance, it can cause quite a few complications.
Don’t worry too much. The ECS has an exact response that fits each situation like a glove. When our bodies activate the ECS, it only impacts what it needs to. If your reproductive hormones are out of whack, it will work to regulate them without interfering with the functions of your digestion system. Once homeostasis is reestablished, specific enzymes stroll by to break down cannabinoids, preventing the scales from leaning too far in the opposite direction.
The ECS itself has three parts:
- Cannabinoid Receptors
- Metabolic Enzymes
There are two major (or most studied) endocannabinoids: anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Given that modern science has only known about the endocannabinoid system since 1992, these may not be the only two. Both are made from fat-like molecules within cell membranes and produced on-demand, then used immediately, which happens to be exactly when they’re needed.
- Anandamide, known as the bliss molecule, influences homeostasis by binding with cannabinoid receptors. It’s responsible for the high some people feel after running, doing yoga, or eating chocolate.
- 2-AG is the most abundant endocannabinoid found in the body. It affects both known cannabinoid receptors but primarily binds to receptors located in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Like anandamide, 2-AG plays an important role in the regulation of appetite, immune system functions, and pain.
Cannabinoid receptors relay information about changing conditions to the inside of the cell to ensure the appropriate cellular response is activated. There are two well-known cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are located predominately in the brain. THC prefers to bind to these receptors, which is why many of us get high when it’s consumed. CB2 receptors are primarily outside of the nervous system, in places like the immune and reproductive systems. However, both receptors are throughout the body as the endocannabinoid system is responsible for many fundamental functions.
Metabolic enzymes destroy endocannabinoids immediately after they’ve carried out their function. The two main enzymes are fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL).
- FAAH breaks down anandamide, which is a crucial nerve signaling chemical that helps regulate a host of physiological functions. THC’s chemical structure is similar to anandamide. However, FAAH doesn’t break THC down as quickly, leaving it to linger far longer than anandamide.
- MAGL is the primary enzyme that breaks down the endocannabinoid 2-AG, which has different THC and lacks its psychotropic properties.
Both of these enzymes make sure endocannabinoids are used when they’re needed and not a second longer than that.
The ECS covers almost every major system of the body. Cannabis stimulates the ECS, making it an obvious target for use in potential treatments. Many illnesses can occur as a result of the endocannabinoid system being imbalanced. And, though we know consuming cannabis can activate the ECS and assist with bringing things back into balance, we must keep in mind that it isn’t a cure-all.
Living a balanced life that includes a healthy diet, hobbies, and routine healthcare play a vital role in ensuring the ECS is in good enough shape to restore internal equilibrium should it be disturbed.
*We are not medical doctors. Your cannabis research should not end here. Take this extremely condensed information and use it to further your journey in learning about one of the most complex plants we’ve ever consumed.*