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What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is a specialized system in the human body embracing a network of cannabinoid receptors, the endocannabinoids and the enzymes that form and break down these cannabinoids.

The History Behind the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

Dr. Mechoulam, the pioneer of cannabis research, was the first to isolate the cannabinoids THC (Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) from the plant. Scientists made a major breakthrough by finding out that THC lodges in a specific receptor, dubbed as the cannabinoid receptor type 1, or CB1, in the human brain. Later, this led to the discovery of cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2), which occupies the immune system.

It wasn’t much longer before it became obvious that the CB1 and CB2 receptors couldn’t be present inside the human body only to interact with seldom consumed, plant-derived cannabinoids, which meant there were probably some natural agents in the body to bind to these receptors. Hence, the research stretched out from learning about the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant to the cannabinoids inside the human body.

Finally, cannabinoids inside the human body were revealed and labeled as endocannabinoids. Endo is a Greek word meaning internal or within. Two endocannabinoids were isolated from the human body, namely anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).

The experts entitled this complex of cannabinoid receptors, the endocannabinoids and the enzymes that form and split these cannabinoids as the endocannabinoid system, or ECS.

What Is the Role of the Endocannabinoid System?

Now that we know what the endocannabinoid system is, let’s dive into the functions and mechanisms of this system.

The endocannabinoid system is integral to keeping a stable internal milieu (scientifically known as homeostasis). It promotes both physical and mental health and wellness; influences appetite, nutrient transport, and energy storage; crosstalks with the immune system; seizes fits; helps you cope with stress and regulates pain perception.

The knowledge of how the ECS works can be crucial to preventing or even treating various chronic health problems.

All the elements of this dialed-in system work in unison to help accomplish its actions.

1. Endocannabinoids (eCBs)

Anandamide, from the Sanskrit word “Ananda,” meaning supreme joy, is the “bliss” chemical. It’s the same compound that gives you the happy feeling after biting into a yummy chunk of chocolate.

Anandamide binds to only the CB1 receptors, whereas 2-AG can attach to both the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) in the brain and the rest of the body.

The enzyme that splits anandamide is fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), whereas 2-AG is inactivated by monoacylglycerol lipase.

Endocannabinoids display unique properties:

Endocannabinoids do not follow the typical course

The eCBs are unique in that they go against the natural flow of chemicals and signals in the brain.

Usually, all the information flows from a nerve cell known as “presynaptic” to the target nerve cell that contains receptors for that chemical and is labeled as “postsynaptic.” The endocannabinoids, on the other hand, travel backward — i.e., from the postsynaptic to the presynaptic nerve cell. That is, contrary to the classical process, it is the postsynaptic cell that forms and releases eCBs.

In the presynaptic nerve cell, the endocannabinoids then come across the CB1 receptors. CB1 receptors function as traffic cops here by blocking the flow of other chemicals out of the presynaptic cells.

After doing what they are designed to do, eCBs are finally taken back into the cell and degraded by their respective enzymes. Inhibition of the enzyme that degrades anandamide (such as by the plant-derived CBD) can get this endocannabinoid back in the system.

Endocannabinoids have a short duration of action

Endocannabinoids have a short lifespan, and your body does not have stores of them all the time. It makes eCBs only on demand. These chemicals then act locally and are degraded immediately. Thus, their effects do not last very long.

2. CB1 Receptors

CB1 receptors can bind to both of the endocannabinoids. They are present in the:

  • Brain (distributed throughout the brain)
  • Fat cells
  • Muscles
  • Gut
  • Liver
  • Thyroid and adrenal glands
  • Male and female reproductive systems
  • Lungs
  • Kidneys

Depending on their location, these receptors perform different tasks.

Stimulating appetite

Although scattered throughout different sites within the brain, the CB1 receptors are also highly concentrated in the appetite centers. CB1 receptor activation in the feeding centers makes you crave food, which can make you gain weight. Scientists are therefore targeting the blockade of CB1 receptors to fight obesity.

Buildup of body fat

As mentioned above, CB1 receptors occur on fat cells. In order for your body to maintain its internal homeostasis, the ECS should be carrying out its job perfectly. This means that any underactivity or even hyperactivity of the ECS can create problems. For instance, an overactivated ECS can cause you to put on more weight by influencing the release of chemicals involved in fat metabolism.

The use of CBD in such cases can help you lose weight as this cannabinoid can turn white fat into brown fat as well as break down the stored fat. Brown fat, as opposed to white fat, has a knack for promoting weight loss.

Providing relief from anxiety and triggering anxiety

CB1 receptors particularly localize on the nerve cells that release excitatory and calming nerve chemicals. On activation by high doses of endocannabinoids, CB1 receptors suppress the release of these chemicals.

When speaking of anxiety, the ECS exhibits dual properties. That is, the endocannabinoid system combats anxiety when low doses of endocannabinoids activate the CB1 receptors. But, at the same time, it can also trigger anxiety when high doses of cannabinoids suppress the release of the relaxing-nerve chemical called GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid).

Moreover, the ECS can drive anxiety by stimulating another group of brain receptors named transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1 channel (TRPV1) that can be considered an extended part of the ECS. While CBD (cannabidiol) does not interact much with the cannabinoid receptors, it can also cause similar effects by interacting with TRPV1.

In short, anandamide acts as an anxiolytic (calms your mind and nerves) on the CB1 receptor and as an anxiogenic agent (promotes anxiety) on the TRPV1.

Slowing down the firing of the nerve cells

By curbing the excitatory chemicals, CB1 receptors can stop the nerve cells from firing too much, which accounts for the role of the endocannabinoid system in epilepsy.

A buffer system for emotional and traumatic situations

The endocannabinoid system regulates the release of stress chemicals and impacts your ability to react to stressful situations.

Also condensed in the reward, memory and fear-regulating centers of your brain, CB1 receptors can help blank out the frightful memories in response to a threat such as that associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

While CBD does not directly interact with the CB1 receptors, it can boost the levels of anandamide, which in turn acts on the CB1 receptors and extinguishes the fearful memories.

Modifying your sensitivity to pain

CB1 receptors also occupy the nerve cells in your spinal cord, where their activation can suppress the incoming pain signals.

Connecting the brain and gut

The ECS is the axis through which the brain and gut can communicate with each other. Chronic stress can prompt a loss of CB1 receptors and heighten your sensitivity to pain as occurs in irritable bowel syndrome. Endocannabinoids that act via CB1 can help relieve tummy discomfort as well as relax your nerves.

Giving you the “high” of THC

CB1 receptors also mediate the psychoactive high of THC.

Slowing down gut motility

In the digestive tract, activation of the CB1 receptors slows the bowel movements. In contrast, a messed up function of the endocannabinoid system can accelerate gut motility and is also one of the factors underlying diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome.

3. CB2 Receptors

The CB2 receptor pockets can slot in only 2-AG. These receptors occupy the immune cells and organs such as the spleen, bone marrow, tonsils and digestive tract. Similar to the CB1 receptors, the actions of the CB2 receptors depend on their location.

Combating inflammation

Owing to their presence on immune cells, CB2 receptors can activate cells of the immune system, which have the potential to fight inflammation.

Endocannabinoids can cool the bowels via the cannabinoid receptors. Once activated by the cannabinoids, CB2 receptors in the gut serve to minimize bowel inflammation as occurs in inflammatory bowel diseases as well as inflammation elsewhere in your body. Pain and inflammation most often go hand in hand. Thus, activated CB2 receptors can undo the inflammation associated with painful gut or other conditions.

Maintaining heart health

CB2 receptors are heart-friendly. Their activation can slow down the buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries, which can otherwise lead to heart disease.

Supporting bone health

CB2 receptors on the bone cells boost the number of bone-forming cells while inhibiting the growth of cells that break down the bone. CB2 thus opens up new roads for the treatment of osteoporosis — a condition in which the bones weaken due to a reduced bone mass.

Controlling nausea and vomiting

Cannabinoid receptors also live in the brain centers that regulate the vomiting reflex. Hence, their activation by cannabinoids can also control nausea and vomiting.

What happens if the ECS isn’t up to par?

Deficiency of the endocannabinoid system can wreak havoc on your body’s internal balance (homeostasis).

Because cannabinoid receptors are spread throughout the brain as well as the rest of the body and endocannabinoids are interacting with their receptors everywhere, the endocannabinoid system serves as a potential bridge between the body and mind. Imagine if this bridge breaks down or doesn’t function the way it is supposed to — several systems of your body can go haywire.

According to Dr. Russo Ethans, ECS deficiency can trigger a plethora of health problems, including but not limited to:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Irritable bowel disease
  • Migraines
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Degenerative brain conditions
  • Failure to thrive
  • Painful menstrual periods
  • Repeated miscarriages

The good news

Even if your endocannabinoid system isn’t up to the mark, you don’t need to jump right to worrying about it. Supplementing with CBD can help the ECS overcome its deficiency via its interaction with this system in the brain as well as other body sites.

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