It’s one of the most important systems in the body. And yet, it’s one that has only recently begun to be studied and understood. Here’s a look at the basics of the ECS and why further research is so important.
What exactly is the Endocannabinoid System?
Found throughout the brain, nervous systems and organs of humans and all mammals — birds, fish and reptiles, too — the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is the body’s internal system of cannabis molecules and receptors. Native and primitive, scientists predict that humans evolved to possess this system over 500 million years ago.
Why is the ECS important to our well being?
The ECS is the largest biological system of receptors in the body, and some scientists believe it is the most important physiological system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Its job is to maintain homeostasis, or balance, and to keep our cells and immune system healthy.
What is the ECS made up of?
- Endocannabinoids: activate cannabinoid receptors
- Cannabinoid Receptors: mediate the effects of cannabinoids
- Enzymes: help the body break down and recycle endocannabinoids
What are the two main receptors within the ECS?
- CB1: regulates appetite and memory and reduce pain, found in the brain and spinal cord
- CB2: works to reduce inflammation, found in the immune system and other areas of the body
What are Endocannabinoids?
Endocannabinoids are cannabinoid-like molecules naturally produced by cells in our body. Endocannabinoids and receptors make up the ECS and exist throughout the body in the brain, immune cells, organs, glands and connective tissues. When something brings a cell out of balance, the ECS is often called upon to restore the previous physiological situation, thus maintaining homeostasis. As a result, our bodies are constantly producing endocannabinoids to address imbalances.
What are the two main endocannabinoids naturally produced inside the body?
- 2-AG: the most prevalent endocannabinoid, responsible for managing appetite, pain response and immune system function
- Anandamide: named after “Ananda,” the Sanskrit word for “bliss” and “happiness, considered “the bliss molecule” and is responsible for the blissful state cannabis induces
What is endocannabinoid system deficiency?
Growing research suggests that a deficiency of endocannabinoids in the body may be linked to specific health issues. Endocannabinoid System Deficiency is a theory for the symptoms and conditions that develop when the Endocannabinoid System isn't functioning properly, or when there aren't enough endocannabinoids present in the body. While we still need more research to fully understand the impact of Endocannabinoid Deficiency, we do understand the importance of a healthy Endocannabinoid System to maintain health and support homeostasis.
Why is homeostasis good?
The ECS has one goal in mind: homeostasis. Throughout changes in our external environment, such as temperature, stress, inflammation or harmful chemical exposures, our ECS works to maintain a stable internal environment. By working to achieve homeostasis, the ECS regulates the many functions necessary for survival and ensures that the body is stable and works in harmony.
How are the ECS and the cannabis plant related?
For the longest time, we didn’t understand why cannabis affected humans. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discovered the Endocannabinoid System in his laboratory at the Hebrew University in Israel. Together with his team, Dr. Mechoulam uncovered naturally occurring neurotransmitters (called endocannabinoids) that are almost identical in structure to the compounds produced by the cannabis plant (called phytocannabinoids.) From here, we uncovered the active compounds in hemp and marijuana and we are just beginning to understand how they impact human health.
What are Phytocannabinoids?
Phytocannabinoids are naturally-occuring cannabinoids found in the hemp and marijuana plants. Science suggests that the most effective way to support our ECS is by ingesting phytocannabinoids. Hemp and marijuana are the only plants in the world that produce cannabinoids. There are 120 known phytocannabinoids in cannabis and the majority are understudied and not properly understood.
The two main phytocannabinoids are CBD and THC. How are they different and how do they work?
CBD and THC are the two most well-known cannabinoids found in the hemp and marijuana plants. THC, present in high levels in the marijuana plant, is the only known intoxicating cannabinoid, responsible for “the high.” THC binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body to reduce inflammation, also affecting appetite and other essential body functions. CBD, present in high levels in the hemp plant doesn’t directly bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors — scientists believe that CBD may prevent the breakdown of naturally occurring endocannabinoids in the body.
How do cannabinoids regulate our mental health?
Emotional health is just as important as physical health in overall body harmony, and endocannabinoids are considered “literally a bridge between body and mind,” With ECS receptors present in the brain and throughout the body, phytocannabinoids help to regulate emotional functions like mood and stress response. And, preliminary studies show that cannabinoid-based therapies may be helpful in anxiety and mood disorders.
What can we do to advance cannabis research to support our ECS and therefore, our health?
Regulatory complexities have made it difficult for U.S. scientists to conduct meaningful research and clinical trials with cannabis. However, academic institutions like UCLA, UC Davis, UC San Diego, UCSF and others are taking initiative to pioneer medical cannabis research. The UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, led by Dr. Jeff Chen, is currently conducting multiple cannabinoid studies that are made possible through private donations. Until regulations change, it is up to us to do what we can to support cannabis research and further the collective understanding of the ECS.