If you've done any research on cannabis, you've likely encountered the endocannabinoid system, but what exactly is it? The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a nerve-signaling system throughout the human body that helps maintain psychological, emotional, and cognitive balance.
The word "endocannabinoid" is a combination of "cannabinoid" — a compound found in cannabis — and "endo" short for "endogenous," which means naturally occuring inside of your body. So simply put, "endocannabinoid" means cannabis-like chemicals that are naturally a part of our biology. The endocannabinoid system exists and is active in our bodies regardless of any cannabis usage.
Keep reading to learn more about ECS, how it functions, and its interactions with cannabis.
How Does the ECS Work?
Not only is the ECS a natural part of our bodies, but it's also a very important system when it comes to keeping our internal functions stable. Experts have discovered that the ECS has three main parts:
- Endocannabinoids are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids, but they’re produced internally. Experts have identified two main endocannabinoids so far: anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). These endocannabinoids are produced depending on our body’s needs and keep our internal functions balanced.
- Receptors in the nervous system and in our bodies that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bond with.
- Enzymes that help break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids. There are two main enzymes: fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which acts on 2-AG.
What Are the Main Functions of the ECS?
Experts believe the primary role of ECS is maintaining homeostasis. Homeostasis is our body's effort to keep everything balanced and optimal no matter what's going on in the environment around us. For example, if your body is cold due to low temperatures, this throws off your body’s homeostasis, and ECS kicks in to help your body return to its ideal state.
The ECS does this via cannabinoid receptors found in select tissues. As of right now, we are aware of two types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1, which is in the brain and nerves of the spinal cord, and CB2, situated in the peripheral nervous system, the digestive system, and specialized cells in the immune system.
Even though experts don’t know the full potential of the ECS yet, the system has been known to help with following functions:
- Appetite and digestion
- Cardiovascular system function
- Chronic pain
- Inflammation and other immune system responses
- Learning and memory
- Motor control
- Muscle formation
- Bone remodeling and growth
- Liver function
- Reproductive system function
- Skin and nerve function
How Does THC Interact With the ECS?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the main cannabinoids found in cannabis. It’s the compound that gets you “high.” Once in your body, THC interacts with your ECS by binding to receptors; it can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, which allows it to have many effects on our bodies and mind. Even though some of these effects are desirable, such as reducing pain and increasing appetite, some (like paranoia and anxiety) are concerning.
How Does CBD Interact With the ECS?
The other major cannabinoid found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t make you "high" but instead gets you balanced. CBD typically doesn’t cause any negative effects. Experts are still working on understanding the interaction between CBD and the ECS. But they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors like THC.
It’s obvious that ECS is very crucial for our lives. However, this complex system has just begun to be studied. As we understand the system more, we can only hope that it helps bring answers regarding some chronic illnesses.