What is the Endocannabinoid System? How Cannabis Works in the Body

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The cannabidiol (CBD) market is still taking the world by storm. By 2024, the market could surpass $20 billion. Today, people use CBD for pain relief, neuroprotection, sleep, and much more.

Not many people realize the reason why CBD is able to offer such a range of health benefits, though. CBD and other cannabinoids act on the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to help our bodies function properly.

What exactly is the endocannabinoid system? How does it ensure cannabis works to help the body? What happens if it doesn’t work?

Keep reading to find out! In this guide, we’ll review everything you need to know about the ECS and its network of receptors. Read on to discover how the ECS works today!

What is the ECS?

The endocannabinoid system is actually named with cannabis in mind. Why? The cannabis plant was discovered first!

“Endo” refers to “endogenous,” meaning something produced naturally in the body. “Cannabinoid” refers to cannabis. “Endocannabinoid,” therefore refers to cannabis-like substances inside the human body.

The ESC is a complex cell-signaling system that researchers identified in the 1990s. They recognized the ECS while studying how THC affects the human body. THC is one of the many compounds, or cannabinoids, found in the cannabis plant.

Cannabis wouldn’t successfully make people high or offer therapeutic effects if our bodies didn’t have the ECS. This biological system is designed to interact with active chemical compounds like cannabinoids. 

Its true purpose is to keep our well-being and health in a state of balance.

This system includes enzymes, endocannabinoids, and receptors that work together to keep us in homeostasis. These receptors are found throughout the entire body, including your:

  • Organs
  • Brain
  • Connective tissue
  • Immune cells
  • Glands

We’re still learning all there is to know about the ECS. Even if you don’t use cannabis, the ECS is active within your body. It’s responsible for regulating different bodily functions. 

How Does the ECS Work?

How exactly does the endocannabinoid system keep our bodies in a state of homeostasis?

Your cannabinoid system completes different tasks in each tissue. As it completes these tasks, it’s aiming to balance our internal and external environments. This balance ensures homeostasis.

Endocannabinoids are naturally produced by your body. Phytocannabinoids, on the other hand, are created by plants. Both can interact and communicate with one another throughout your cells.

For example, cannabinoids can decrease sensitizers and activators at the site of injured tissue. They can stabilize the nerve cells to prevent excessive firing as well. Then, they’ll calm surrounding immune cells to keep pro-inflammatory substances from releasing.

A little inflammation can help the body heal. Too much, however, can cause pain.

These three responsibilities help accomplish the same goal: to minimize the damage from an injury and relieve pain. 

Your ECS acts on your nervous system, immune system, and organs. It also operates as a connection between the mind and body. 

In order to further understand how the ECS works, we need to discuss each component.

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are also known as endogenous cannabinoids. These are cannabinoids your body naturally produces. However, they’re similar to cannabinoids in terms of how they function.

Endocannabinoids are tiny molecules that are responsible for activating your cannabinoid receptors.

There are two main endocannabinoids to consider: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Together, these endocannabinoids ensure your internal functions work properly.

AEA and 2-AG are both fat-like molecules. They’re located within cell membranes. These endocannabinoids are synthesized on-demand.

In other words, your body creates and uses endocannabinoids when they’re needed. Your body won’t store these endocannabinoids for later use.

Endocannabinoid Receptors

Endocannabinoid receptors are located naturally throughout the body. Your endocannabinoids bind to these receptors. Then, they tell your ECS they need to complete a specific action.

There are two main endocannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2.

Cannabinoid receptors are located on the surface of your cells. They pay attention to conditions that could impact your cells. If the situation changes, the receptors transmit information to your cells to trigger a response.

Your CB1 receptors are most abundant within the brain. These receptors can interact with THC, which is how we experience psychoactive effects. For example, THC’s interaction with CB1 can cause you to feel high.

CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are placed outside of the nervous system. They’re abundant throughout your immune and digestive systems as well.

Enzymes

The third component of your ECS is enzymes. Enzymes are responsible for breaking down used cannabinoids and endocannabinoids. 

There are two main enzymes to consider: FAAH and MAGL.

FAAH is responsible for breaking down anandamide. MAGL, on the other hand, breaks down 2-AG.

Remember, endocannabinoids are synthesized on-demand. These enzymes ensure the endocannabinoids are used only as long as your body needs them. Once they complete their function, enzymes break them down. 

These enzymes also distinguish natural endocannabinoids from other signals throughout your body. For example, neurotransmitters and hormones can trigger signals as well. Some of these are used for seconds, while others are stored for future use.  

What Does the ECS Do?

Now that you understand the components of your ECS, let’s discuss its function. What exactly does your endocannabinoid system do in the body?

The ECS actually plays a part in multiple functions, including:

  • Metabolism
  • Muscle formation
  • Mood
  • Stress
  • Liver function
  • Appetite and digestion
  • Chronic pain
  • Learning and memory
  • Inflammation
  • Motor control
  • Cardiovascular system function
  • Sleep
  • Skin and nerve function
  • Immune system responses
  • Bone remodeling and growth
  • Reproductive system function

Remember, these various functions can all work together to ensure homeostasis.

Let’s say you’re in a car accident and scrape your arms. An outside force can cause an injury, which throws your body out of homeostasis. Your ECS will then trigger a response to help your body function properly.

Homeostasis

All three components of your ECS come together to help you maintain homeostasis. 

Homeostasis is your body’s desire to keep everything in balance. You don’t want to feel too hot or too cold, but “just” right. This is also known as the Goldilocks effect. 

Your ECS keeps your internal environment stable, even if external factors are causing changes.

The ECS corrects the issue. For example, let’s say you’re too hot. Your body will begin to sweat in an attempt to regulate your temperature.

Then, you can cool down. 

Your body knows how to activate your ECS based on what your internal systems need. Once the endocannabinoids help you find balance, enzymes break them down. Why?

To keep your endocannabinoids from going too far. If enzymes don’t stop them, the endocannabinoids could cause your body to go too far in one direction.

We need homeostasis for survival and health.

There are two main ways the ECS helps us remain in a state of homeostasis.

Regulating Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injuries, illnesses, or invaders. The immune system naturally responds with inflammation to protect the body. Otherwise, it would struggle to remove germs and keep us healthy.

Immune cells move to the injured area to make repairs. This is the ECS’s attempt to keep the body in homeostasis. 

It’s important that your enzymes end this process before it goes too far. Otherwise, you could experience chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can cause painful symptoms.

Different lifestyle, environmental, and social factors can cause a person to develop systemic chronic inflammation (SCI). SCI is associated with a number of diseases that represent the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide. These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Diabetes militias
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Neurodegenerative disorders

Endocannabinoids can act as anti-inflammatory agents. They could even help treat inflammatory diseases. 

When you have a bacterial infection, immune cells release pro-inflammatory molecules. These molecules gather immune cells to fight the bacteria. Endocannabinoids help fight the bacteria and keep the inflammatory response from going too far. 

Cell Firing

Neurons in the brain communicate using electrochemical signals. Every neuron listens to another. Too much input, however, can disrupt homeostasis. 

In fact, an overload can become toxic to your health.

If a neuron becomes overactive, it could send too many signals to other neurons. Your neurons will begin creating endocannabinoids. The endocannabinoids will bind to your CB1 receptors and tell the neuron to calm down. 

This process, known as retrograde signals, ensures your body maintains homeostasis. Interacting with the neurons ensures information flows in one director. 

This doesn’t only occur in your brain. Your immune and digestive systems need to take care when signaling your cells as well.

Potential Treatments

Learning more about the ECS could help discover new medical treatments. In fact, cannabinoids could prove helpful with treating:

  • Chronic pain conditions
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Acute and chronic kidney disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cardiovascular disease

For example, CBD might contain anti-cancer properties. In one study on mice, CBD kept breast cancer from spreading. This anti-tumor effect might help prevent other cancers from spreading as well, including:

  • Prostate
  • Brain
  • Colon
  • Lung

Researchers are still learning more about potential treatments.

Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System

How exactly do phytocannabinoids interact with the ECS? 

One of the initial uses of cannabis was as surgical anesthesia for pain relief. It was used in ancient China, Israel, Greece, Rome, and India. Today, cannabis offers an abundance of health benefits.

Most people associate cannabis with two main phytocannabinoids: THC and CBD.

The ECS and THC

First, let’s look at tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Remember, THC is the compound in the cannabis plant that can cause psychoactive effects.

Once you inhale or inject THC, it will interact with your ECS. One of the reasons THC is so powerful is because it can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

THC is able to impact the mind and body as a result. It could stimulate your appetite or ease your pain symptoms. For some people, it causes paranoia and anxiety instead.

When you smoke marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) attaches to your CB1 receptors in the brain. An endocannabinoid, anandamide, attaches to the same receptor.

Anandamide and THC are quite similar, though anandamide alone won’t get you high. Instead, anandamide has a soothing effect.

You can find more info about delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol here.

The FAAH enzyme breaks down anandamide and other endocannabinoids. It doesn’t break down THC, though. Instead, THC is able to interact with your body longer to offer prolonged effects.

The ECS and CBD

How do your endocannabinoid system and CBD interact with each other?

Remember, unlike THC, CBD doesn’t have psychoactive effects. It doesn’t cause you to feel high. In fact, CBD can stop the FAAH enzyme from breaking anandamide down.

This allows anandamide to have a soothing effect on the body. That’s why we associate CBD with its calming, therapeutic effects. 

CBD typically isn’t associated with negative health effects. Researchers are still trying to learn more about how CBD interacts with your ECS. While THC binds with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, CBD doesn’t.

Researchers believe CBD works by keeping your endocannabinoids from breaking down. This prolongs the effect the endocannabinoids produce.

It’s also possible that CBD binds to a third receptor. More research is still underway.

CBD’s potential health benefits include:

  • Reducing inflammation to ease stiffness and pain
  • Easing arthritis pain
  • Reducing muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis patients
  • Easing depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Reducing cancer-treatment symptoms (pain, vomiting, nausea)
  • Lowering high blood pressure levels (reducing the risk of stroke, metabolic syndrome, and heart attacks)
  • Reducing drug-seeking behaviors in addicts
  • Limiting sebum production, which causes acne
  • Reducing eczema, psoriasis, aging, wrinkles, and skin irritation
  • Providing neuroprotection
  • Preventing diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels and increasing insulin production
  • Helping patients with schizophrenia and other mental disorders

Scientists are still learning more about the potential health benefits CBD can offer by acting on the ECS.

The Endocannabinoid System: Your Guide to How Cannabis Interacts With the ECS

Your endocannabinoid system is responsible for keeping your body in a state of balance. Without it, your body could struggle to make repairs. Cannabis compounds like THC and CBD wouldn’t interact with our bodies, either.

Instead, the ECS keeps us healthy and allows us to enjoy the benefits cannabis has to offer!

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