What Is the Endocannabinoid System? Introduction To The Human Endocannabinoid System

What Is the Endocannabinoid System? Introduction To The Human Endocannabinoid System

Posted by Annie Rouse on Jun 19th 2021

If you’ve never heard of the endocannabinoid system, you shouldn’t feel bad: it’s not part of the standard lessons in biology you might have learned in regular schooling.

It’s still an important, natural part of our bodies, even if it’s not yet well understood. First discovered in the 1990s by researchers investigating the THC molecule, the endocannabinoid system, researchers are still working to completely understand this complex part of our bodies.

The endocannabinoid system is a series of specialized receptors and natural compounds produced by our body. Compounds like CBD essentially “plug into” this unique part of our systems, as we’ll explain in the following article. However, their importance goes far deeper than simply helping you absorb a popular supplement. The endocannabinoid system is a key part of maintaining balance throughout our bodies.

Defining the endocannabinoid system

A graphic representation of the human nervous system including brain and spine, inside a drawing of a woman, with the words 'The Human Endocannabinoid System: An Introduction'

The endocannabinoid system responds to two classes of compounds.

Compounds like CBD or THC are called phytocannabinoids, because they’re produced by plants (the prefix phyto- means plant). These compounds closely resemble the ones that are always produced by our bodies. These are called endogenous (meaning from the body) cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids.

Endocannabinoids play a significant biological role by maintaining balance or homoeostasis in the body. In simplest form, the ECS works internally to make sure your body is working at its best, even if things are going on externally. For example, if summer weather makes your body heat up, the ECS helps to cool the body down and keep your heart rate balanced.

The Endocannabinoids System mainly works throughout the Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nervous System, but cannabinoid receptors have been found within every major system in the human body. And this important endocannabinoid system is not just found in humans. Rather the endocannabinoid system is found within all mammals on Earth.

Responsibilities of the endocannabinoid system

In simple terms, the primary purpose of the endocannabinoid system is to help us eat, sleep, protect, relax and remember.

The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating multiple functions such as: appetite, digestion, immune function, inflammation, mood, sleep, reproduction/fertility, motor control, temperature regulation, memory, and pain/pleasure.

A healthy ECS means:

  • Digestive system will work properly: ECS ensures your gastrointestinal (GI) system is functioning correctly.
  • Balanced appetite
  • Better sleep: When endocannabinoids are low it can have a negative effect on your sleep cycle.
  • Process pain normally
  • Your memory works optimally
  • Decreased stress and anxiety: Low endocannabinoids can cause higher levels of stress and anxiety
  • Moods are regulated: ECS has a strong effect on emotional behavior and mood because it regulates neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol.

Key components of the endocannabinoid system

There are three key components to the ECS that maintain homeostasis in the body. These components are:

Endocannabinoids: Cannabinoids that are internally produced by your body to ensure your body runs smoothly. So far, there are two well-documented endocannabinoids: Anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). Anandamide was named after the sanskrit word “ananda” meaning “bliss.”

Cannabinoid Receptors: These receptors are found throughout your body’s systems. They signal that the ECS needs to take action. Two important endocannabinoid receptors are the CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors. They help regulate the various systems mentioned above (appetite, sleep, mood, etc.). As science progresses on the topic, we’ve uncovered more cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. Other receptors that have been discovered but are still not fully understood include GPR55, GPR18 and TRPV1 receptors.

Enzymes: After endocannabinoids and the receptors have fulfilled their purpose, enzymes then break them down. Breaking them down prevents any overcorrecting from occurring.

How do CBD and THC affect the endocannabinoid system?

Naturally produced phytocannabinoids such as CBD and THC can bind to your cannabinoid receptors and affect your body.

THC binds to the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptor, which interacts with the ECS. When THC binds to the CB1 receptor, it is what is called the “marijuana high” or provides the state of “bliss” because the response mimics the responses of the endogenous cannabinoid Anandamide, which is naturally produced in the body.

Our bodies also create an enzyme called Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) which is the reason THC binds more strongly to cannabinoid receptors. As mentioned before, enzymes break down endocannabinoids like anandamide. THC remains in your system longer due to FAAH being incapable of breaking it down, causing it to have an increased impact.

Conversely, CBD interacts with the ECS differently than THC. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t make you “high” or intoxicated. Even so, like anything in the body that activates brain activity, CBD and other cannabinoids are considered psychoactive. But that’s not a bad thing! Psychoactivity simply means the brain and/or Central Nervous System is responding to the compound. In this regard many cannabinoids are psychoactive, but only some, like THC, are intoxicating. Other examples of psychoactive compounds are caffeine and sugar.

Just like THC, CBD remains in your system longer and has an increased impact, because it too cannot be broken down by FAAH. In addition, further research is allowing us to understand CBD more. From this research science is showcasing CBD’s interaction with the Adenosine and Serotonin receptors as well as two other cannabinoid receptors, GPR55 and TRPV1. The interaction of CBD with Adenosine and Serotonin receptors means that the endocannabinoid system may play an even larger role in our bodily functions than what we initially believed. As if balancing the body wasn’t a big enough role!

What about other cannabinoids?

An important aspect of this conversation relating to the endocannabinoid system is that there is more to cannabinoids than just CBD and THC. There are over 100 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Each of these cannabinoids interact with our endocannabinoid system in differing ways.

Other popular and up-and-coming cannabinoids include CBG or cannabigerol, CBC or cannabichromene, CBN or cannabinol, and many more. Then there are acid forms of those cannabinoids like CBDA or cannabidiolic-acid and varin forms of those cannabinoids like CBDV or cannabidivarin.

This hardly scratches the surface on cannabinoids, but it is important to remember when searching for a CBD product that it is not just about CBD - it is about all the cannabinoids and how those cannabinoids impact your body.

A graphic showing a person holding their head in pain, and another clutching their stomach, with the words 'What is Clinical Endocannabinoid Synrome?'

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency: Could ECS imbalances cause health conditions?

Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) is a recently studied condition. The theory is that certain people have lower levels of endocannabinoids. There are several disorders that researchers believe could be caused by CECD. Some of these disorders include: fibromyalgia, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and multiple sclerosis.

Further research is needed to prove the existence of CECD and why some may experience endocannabinoid deficiency. This data will take decades to process and understand. Prolonged study is necessary because endocannabinoids levels are constantly changing. They rise and fall after you have eaten, moved, encountered stress and so much more! This makes understanding these deficiencies difficult to prove.

Learning more about the system that maintains balance

The endocannabinoid system maintains balance or homoeostasis in the body. Cannabinoids like CBD, THC, CBG, CBC, and CBN all interact differently with your body’s endocannabinoid system and can mimic natural responses in the body in order to maintain balance.

Experts are still seeking a better understanding of the ECS, therefore there is still a lot we don’t know about it, but we are working hard to understand more every day. The bottom-line is the endocannabinoid system plays a vast role in our bodily functions to ensure our body is in stable condition and everything is working at its best.