Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System
How Cannabis Works With the Endocannabinoid System
How does cannabis work with our bodies? Why does it create a psychoactive effect, and how can it stop nausea, reduce discomfort, promote stress relief, and facilitate a great night’s rest - all at once? Read on to get a better understanding of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system.
Many people have theories about how cannabis works, and misinformation runs rampant - especially in the United States. Since cannabis prohibition in 1937, phony science and biased research have plagued the plant. Some believe that cannabis works in obscure ways, such as depriving the brain of oxygen to create a psychoactive effect. (But, seriously, we’ve heard that before.)
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The truth is that cannabis works because our bodies are compatible with the plant. Why? Because of the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The endocannabinoid system is a bodily system made to receive cannabinoids. This may sound like pseudoscience or a cannabis-funded propaganda push but trust us - the endocannabinoid system is very real. There is no system in our bodies that receive tobacco, and comparing the two isn’t rooted in science. Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence to prove the importance of the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system is equipped with receptors - CB1 and CB2 receptors, to be specific - that meet cannabinoids like THC and CBD to create homeostasis in the body. There’s plenty of credible research to back this belief and enough science to suggest that modulating the endocannabinoid system is a promising therapeutic target for various conditions.
The Journal of Young Investigators published a remarkable document in 2018 titled “The Endocannabinoid System, Our Universal Regulator.” The report begins by saying: The endocannabinoid system plays a very important role in the human body for our survival. This is due to its ability to play a critical role in maintaining the homeostasis of the human body, which encompasses the brain and immune system…”
The introductory paragraph says that the endocannabinoid system can tackle many concerns because of the receptors’ widespread locations. The report also states that cannabinoid therapy may be a safer alternative to some prescription medications because they are rapidly synthesized and degraded. Therefore, they don’t stay in the body for long periods as other medicines do.
What are Cannabinoids in Cannabis?
We briefly mentioned THC and CBD are cannabinoids, and they are the most well-known! THC and CBD fall under a group called phytocannabinoids, which are cannabinoids from the cannabis plant. They aren’t the only phytocannabinoids, though, and in fact, the cannabis plant contains over 100 known cannabinoids! CBG, CBN, and CBC are also cannabinoids that have recently made a splash in the cannabis space, and like CBD, they don’t create psychoactive effects.
But endocannabinoids also exist, hence the name “endocannabinoid system.” Endocannabinoids are naturally-occurring in the human body and produced as needed, so your body will make them as you require them. Breast milk contains heavy concentrations of endocannabinoids, so when a baby nurses, it naturally stimulates their ECS.
The endocannabinoids you’ll hear being talked about the most often are 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and anandamide, and 2-AG is what you can most often find in breast milk.
Who discovered the endocannabinoid system?
Meet Lumir Hanus! We almost guarantee you’ve never heard of him.
Hanus discovered the endocannabinoid system on March 24th, 1992, alongside his research partner and pharmacologist, William Devane. Hanus is an analytical chemist, and he isolated the endocannabinoid anandamide for the first time. Anandamide's existence proved the human brain produces cannabinoids on its own, meaning there really is an endocannabinoid system!
This discovery was built upon previous work by Hanus’ research partner Devane, namely his work with Professor Allyn Howlett on CB1 receptors in 1988. Their discovery of the CB1 receptors sparked a hunt to identify the endocannabinoid system, and Devane and Hanus completed the quest in 1992.
CB1 receptors primarily interact with THC, and the cannabinoid fits the receptor-like key. Some refer to CB1 as the THC receptor because that is what it’s known for doing - interacting with THC.
If you looked at a map of the endocannabinoid receptors across our body, you’d see a dense cluster of CB1 receptors in places like the brain, our spinal cords, and the nervous system. The presence of CB1 receptors in our brain explains why cannabinoids can have an impact on memory processing, motor control, and pain regulation.
All animals with spinal cords have CB1 receptors. You can also find CB1 receptors in peripheral organs and tissues like the spleen and endocrine gland and parts of the reproductive system, digestive system, and urinary tract.
The CB1 receptor is a G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR), and GPCRs are the largest and most diverse group of membrane receptors in eukaryotes. In other words, you don’t need a science degree to understand; GPCRs are all receptors for various things, such as peptides, lipids, sugars, and more. And, of course: cannabinoids!
CB2 receptors are mainly located in immune cells, the tonsils, and vital organs like the spleen. We mentioned that CB1 receptors are typically found on neurons, but that isn’t the case for CB2 receptors. However, a 2015 study suggests that CB2 receptors may be more involved with the brain than we initially thought. It states, “CB2 receptors and their genes are located in neurons that contain dopamine in the ventral tegmental area, a brain area that is involved in reward and drug addiction.”
A common belief is that CBD interacts primarily with CB2, though research shows CBD doesn’t interact with any receptors at all. At least, not in the way that THC does. The science is still being explored, but it is thought that the CB2 receptors work by regulating inflammation. Interestingly enough, a terpene called beta-caryophyllene perfectly interacts with the CB2 receptors and binds to it to regulate the body. Terpenes are also found in the cannabis plant, and they are thought to be responsible for much of the desired effects cannabis provides, alongside cannabinoids.
Science is Still Rolling In
The science behind the endocannabinoid system is still rolling in, even though we have an incredible foundation. We know the endocannabinoid system exists, and we are pretty sure we know the purpose of it. But like anything else, learning it requires time and patience.
Now that you know more about how the endocannabinoid system works, check out our other blog on Joint Rolling 101!