Every vertebrate on the planet has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) that’s responsible for maintaining balance within the body. But despite its widespread existence, we’ve only known about the ECS since the late ‘80s.
Back then, a government-funded study at the St. Louis University School of Medicine determined our brain has receptor sites that bind and respond to cannabis’s chemical compounds, known as phytocannabinoids. Following that determination, two scientists were able to isolate the first cannabinoid produced by humans, named Anandamide, in 1992. This discovery confirmed the human brain creates cannabinoids on its own, known as endocannabinoids. (We’d known about the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant since 1940.)
Even though we’ve been aware of the ECS for over 30 years, research has been slow to develop. Fortunately, as laws and perception change, a greater focus is being put on the medicinal advantages of cannabis. Since those benefits are received directly through the ECS, research is finally starting to evaluate how and why this system is so important.
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
Entourage Effect Main Components
The endocannabinoid system is a communication network within your body. Located in tissues throughout your body in places like your brain, organs, glands, and immune cells, it’s constantly sending signals to help maintain metabolic tone and balance, otherwise known as homeostasis. In other words, it’s there to make sure everything inside your body is balanced.
It impacts anything from the amount of oil that’s on your face to the microbiome in your gut. It has an influence on your immune system and how your body heals. It plays an important role in your mental and emotional health, and it’s directly correlated to your overall physiology.
It has three main components that work together to support its function.
Key Components of the Endocannabinoid System
Research has started to reveal numerous types of receptors that contribute to the function of the ECS, but there are two main ones—CB1 and CB2. Both can be found throughout the body, though they are more prevalent in certain areas. CB1 is mostly in the nervous system and is one of the most abundant receptor types in the brain. CB2 is mostly outside the nervous system in places like the immune system.
The second element is endocannabinoids, which bind with the cannabinoid receptors. The body synthesizes endocannabinoids on demand, meaning they’re made and used exactly when they’re needed, as opposed to being created and stored for later.
The final piece of the system is metabolic enzymes that break down the endocannabinoids. The enzymes are important because they make sure the cannabinoids get used when they’re needed but not for longer than necessary.
How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?
Basically, if your body is experiencing some type of system imbalance, endocannabinoids will bind to receptors to try to bring it back in line. What happens after that depends on which endocannabinoid is binding to which receptor and what tissue the receptor is located on.
For example, let’s say you’re having back pain. Your ECS might send some endocannabinoids to target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve, in turn weakening the strength of pain signals and reducing the amount of pain you feel. At the same time, it might send some endocannabinoids to target CB2 receptors, which help to reduce pain-causing inflammation. The receptors work together from different angles to try to bring your body back to a more balanced, less pained state.
Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System
Similar to the body’s own endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant also nourish and stimulate our ECS. To understand how cannabis interacts with our ECS, let’s look at the two most known phytocannabinoids: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
THC is the psychoactive compound that makes you feel high. It has an affinity for the CB1 receptor and acts as an agonist, meaning it promotes the same downstream signaling our endocannabinoids would. (Note: Although THC triggers the same signaling our endocannabinoids do when they bind to CB1, our endocannabinoids don’t get us high like THC does. Endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids are chemically distinct in structure, so the receptors “see” them as signaling different information.)
Research is still being done on exactly what happens when THC binds to CB1, but we do know that it activates our reward pathway and releases dopamine. Research also suggests it can “unplug” our brain’s default mode network, sometimes stimulating creativity or allowing us to be more present and in the moment. Scientists are still researching which other factors are involved in cannabis’s euphoric high, but those are two big ones.
CBD, on the other hand, is not psychotropic and acts as an antagonist of THC. That means it won’t get you high, and it actually blocks THC from binding to CB1 receptors. It does this by physically changing the shape of the receptor. This is part of the reason CBD can dampen your high—it keeps some THC compounds from being able to bind to CB1 receptors. It also impacts other ECS functions, like the reuptake and breakdown of other compounds.
Cannabis offers us much more than just an altered state of mind. Our bodies can use the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis to synergistically enhance our endocannabinoid system.
Endocannabinoid System Overview
The ECS is a communication network found throughout the bodies of all vertebrates. Its main goal is to help the body maintain internal homeostasis or balance.
The ECS has three main components: receptors, endocannabinoids, and enzymes. The two main receptors are CB1 and CB2. Endocannabinoids bind to those receptors to tell them which signals to send in order to keep the body balanced. Enzymes then break down the endocannabinoids once their job is done.
Cannabis has phytocannabinoids that also interact with our ECS. This is how THC makes you high or CBD reduces inflammation—by stimulating your ECS.
As the acceptance and expansion of cannabis legalization continue, we’re sure to learn more about this vital system and how cannabis interacts with it. For now, we know that our bodies need cannabinoids to maintain internal balance, and while we can create cannabinoids on our own, cannabis can give us a boost and help nourish our ECS in ways our body can’t.