The Endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a widespread network of receptors in the human body — as well as in the bodies of all other vertebrates, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for balancing vital aspects of a healthy human life including memory, sleep, appetite and metabolism, mood and stress, pain regulation, and even reproductive and mental health. As a self-regulatory system, optimal functioning of the ECS results in the production of the right number and combination of endocannabinoids needed to maintain harmony in the body (homeostasis).

Believed to have become part of our evolutionary journeys more than 500 million years ago, our scientific knowledge of this system is only three decades young! Discovered by scientists in the 1990s, this complex cell-signaling system of receptors is present throughout the body including in the skin cells, fat tissue, immune system, blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract, and skeletal muscles. As well as in our central nervous system, liver, pancreas, kidneys, heart, and bones. As widespread and complex as it is, researchers continue to explore the intricacies of how it works, and seek to gain a more thorough understanding of its potential functions.

To date, researchers have identified three main components of the ECS: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes. Together, these three components participate in an intricate system of communication with the overall goal to maintain optimal health and function. 

The first component: Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are cannabis-like molecules that are naturally produced by the body. Currently, two primary endocannabinoids have been identified: Anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). Their symbiotic relationship with the body’s endocannabinoid receptors can be understood as having a lock and key relationship. Essentially, when an external disruption occurs — for instance, inflammation or an injury — the body responds by producing endocannabinoids that bind to the receptors, which ultimately restore equilibrium.

The second component: Endocannabinoid receptors

There are two known types of endocannabinoid receptors found throughout the body. The first is CB1, which are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord — our central nervous system, and the second type is CB2, which are more widespread throughout the body but have the highest expressions in our immune systems. Endocannabinoids are flexible in their ability to bind to either receptor and, depending on the location of the receptor and the endocannabinoid that binds to, the outcomes will be different. For instance, if inflammation occurs, endocannabinoids will bind to CB2 receptors in the immune system to communicate a disruption of homeostasis. If endocannabinoids bind with CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve they can help to relive pain.     

The final (known) component: Enzymes

Quite simply, enzymes are the fixers. Once the endocannabinoids have completed their function, and bodily homeostasis has been restored, the enzymes are deployed to break down the endocannabinoids and clear the area. Two key enzymes have been identified to complete this function, each designed to target a specific endocannabinoid.  Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) is responsible for the breakdown of AEA, and monoacylglycerol lipase (MGL) is designed to dissolve 2-AG.

The known and unknown

Everything researchers have learned so far about the human ECS is rooted in an original curiosity of why and how cannabis impacts the body. Stemming from this early research, experts where able to isolate different cannabinoids found in both hemp and cannabis including CBD and THC, which we discussed in our previous blog.

Once these cannabinoids enter our bodies their interactions with our ECS vary. THC mimics the functions of our body’s naturally produced endocannabinoids by attaching themselves to receptors. Versatile in its ability to bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors — increasing its impact on the mind and body — results in outcomes that can be both beneficial and problematic. For instance, its potential to provide pain relief and appetite stimulation can be highly beneficial for some, while others may experience increased anxiety or paranoia. In addition, more research is needed to understand how cannabinoids may impact mental health overall.

CBD on the other hand remains the more elusive cannabinoid. Researchers have yet to identify how it interacts with the our ECS. Several theories are being explored in order to gain insight into its potential for effective therapeutic uses. One such theory is that CBD interrupts the breakdown process of the endocannabinoid. By preventing their breakdown, it may increase their positive impact on the body. Another theory being explored is that CBD is binding to a yet-to-be discovered receptor. Likewise, experts continue with evidenced-based research to understand the ways CBD may be beneficial in treating certain physical and mental health issues. 

Beyond these theories, some experts are interested in understanding how endocannabinoid deficiencies might play a role in the presence of chronic illnesses. Essentially, the theory known as Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency is based on the idea that not producing enough endocannabinoids may be the root of many treatment-resistant illnesses including migraines, auto-immune disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia, to name a few. Central to this idea is that because the ECS is present in every major system in the body, any deficiency in endocannabinoid production would significantly impact optimal bodily function. Exploring this theory also lends itself to gaining insight on the potential benefits cannabinoids have on treating such illnesses.

What we do in the meantime 

While experts move forward with their research to better understand the human ECS, plant-derived cannabinoids, and any impact an endocannabinoid deficiency might have on our physical and mental health, we have our work to focus on, too. Given that experts have identified the primary role of the ECS is to maintain bodily harmony, any effort we take support a balanced ECS is to our benefit. Simply put, eating nutritious foods, getting adequate sleep and exercise, and finding ways to increase our joy —thereby, reducing our stress levels — creates harmony and balance and, ultimately, supports equilibrium for our endocannabinoid system.