How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?
Author – Jon Russell
Edited by Noah Persin
Thank you for joining us for the next installment of the GreenSea “Understanding Cannabinoids” series. In this series we’re going to be detailing each cannabinoid and their medicinal effects. Before we begin discussing cannabinoids themselves, it’s important that we understand how they affect our bodies. The human body seems to be specifically designed for a symbiotic relationship with cannabis. How does it all work though?
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is found in every animal (except insects) and researchers believe that it developed in sea squibs over 600 million years ago. However, until about 50 years ago nobody knew it existed. The first step to finding the ECS was research on THC in Israel in the 60s.
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and Y. Gaoni conducted studies on THC in 1964. They were able to confirm the existence of the cannabinoid but no further research was conducted at that time. No one knew how cannabis’ health benefits worked. You could smoke it and stop an asthma attack. Smoking also raised spirits and gave a feeling of bliss. But no one knew how! It took over 20 years before new research shed light into that corner.
Allyn Howlett and William Devane’s research in the late 80s finally gave new information. In 1988 they discovered what would become known as the CB1 receptor. This receptor can be found throughout the body but is mainly centered in the brain. It was found in the mood, appetite, stress, and memory centers of the brain. Still, very little knowledge of how this all worked was found.
Soon after researchers found the CB2 receptor. These were found primarily in the immune system and were found to regulate immune system responses. They were also in the gut, liver, heart, blood vessels, and the reproductive systems among others.
All of this research finally led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. Dr. Mechoulam, in partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health, discovered the presence of a natural cannabinoid in 1992. It was called anandamide and it bound to the CB1 receptors. Soon after, in 1995, 2-AG (arachidonoylglycerol) was discovered and it bound to the CB2 receptor. It was the tracing of these and the THC cannabinoid through metabolic pathways that led to the discovery of the ECS.
CB1 and CB2 Receptors
Knowing how it was discovered only gives you half the story though. How does it all work? To understand that we have to learn a little bit about the receptors themselves.
The CB1 receptor is the part of the brain responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effects. Only cannabinoids (either naturally occurring or plant based) will bind to this receptor. This receptor is responsible for a number of physiological responses. There are thousands of these receptors in the brain’s pain and hunger centers, which is why cannabis can lower pain levels or can promote overeating. The CB1 receptor also helps to regulate the cardiovascular system and promotes neuroplasticity.
The CB2 receptor is responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis. It helps with immune responses and is concentrated most in the spleen. This receptor also helps mitigate pain levels in the body. New research is showing that the CB2 receptor also works as a flow control regulator for nerve impulses in the brain. Unfortunately very little other research has been done with the CB2 receptor and it is far less understood.
The Endocannabinoid System & The Entourage Effect
The primary function of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis. That is the ability to maintain the essential internal balance to sustain life no matter what outside influences are there. Ok, sure. But how?
THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol) binds to the CB1 receptor and is responsible for the psychoactive “high” one experiences when consuming cannabis. THC begins to provide pain relief as it lowers the level of pain felt. It doesn’t lower the pain itself, however it lowers the body’s physiological responses to the pain.
CBN (or Cannabinol) bind to the CB2 receptor and are responsible for the anti-inflammatory and sleep inducing effects. CBN is also an antibacterial and has shown to be efficient in treating MRSA. Research is also showing that CBN helps promote bone growth.
Unlike THC or CBN, CBD (or cannabidiol) fits “between” these two receptors and binds to a third receptor, TRPV-1. CBD is a direct agonist, or stimulant, to this receptor and is thought to be one of the reasons that it’s effective against neuropathic pain. Capsaicin also activates the TRPV-1 receptor.
These cannabinoids, along with the terpenes, amino acids, and other compounds combine to create what is known as the “Entourage Effect”. This concept is the theory that all of the compounds and cannabinoids in the cannabis plant work together to create a more powerful effect than just a single, isolated cannabinoid. Whole plant extractions are becoming more and more common due to this concept.
The endocannabinoid system is an integral part of our bodies regulatory systems. Research has shown that if this system goes out of balance then there are higher instances of debilitating diseases and cancers. Maintaining a healthy ECS is important for long term health and the entire cannabis plant plays a role in maintaining that system.
Come back next week for our first cannabinoid discussion. We will be highlighting Cannabigerol Acid, also known as the stem-cell cannabinoid. Don’t forget to subscribe to the GreenSea Distribution newsletter for the next installment in our “Understanding Cannabinoids” series.
Click here to read the next article in the Understanding Cannabinoid series: Cannabigerol – The Building Block
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