A deeper look at the endocannabinoid system

A lot of people are unaware of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) as in school we are not taught about this particular system in biology class, as well as the fact that it is quite a recent discovery of the human body. However, it is a very active and crucial molecular system that affects multiple functions and aspects of the body, and aids in maintaining homeostasis.

The Endocannabinoid System was discovered in the early 1990s through research being carried out on Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its effects. The discovery of this intricate cell-signalling system revealed that it affects the regulation of the human body’s physiology, mood, appetite, sleep, memory, and reproduction and fertility.

It has now been concluded from research that cannabinoids, which are chemical compounds, can modulate physiological systems in the brain and body. In the cannabis plant, over 100 cannabinoids have been identified- the two most researched are THC and cannabidiol (CBD). Although cannabinoids are produced in the cannabis plant, there are also endogenous cannabinoids that exist naturally in the brain and body of mammals. Cannabinoids can also be synthetically created by pharmaceutical researchers and companies.

Although there is still a lot more to learn about the ECS, to fully understand its role, we do know that it consists of three core components; endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes.


Endocannabinoids


Endocannabinoids are the endogenous cannabinoids that are naturally made in the human body. They are very similar to cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, but instead are produced in the body, the two key endocannabinoids identified so far are; anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). These endocannabinoids assist in modulating internal functions and are produced by the body when they are needed, revealing that it is difficult to say what the typical levels of each endocannabinoid are.



Endocannabinoid Receptors


Receptors can be found throughout the human body, and the endocannabinoids bind to these receptors to signal whether or not the ECS is required to take action. The two key endocannabinoid receptors are;
● CB1 receptors, these are generally found in the central nervous system
● CB2 receptors, these are generally found in the peripheral nervous system, particularly immune cells.
Endocannabinoids are able to bind to either one of these receptors, and the resulting effects vary depending on where the receptor is located in the body and which endocannabinoid binds to it. For example, endocannabinoids can target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to alleviate pain, whereas others may bind to a CB2 receptor in the body’s immune cells to signal that the body is experiencing inflammation.


Enzymes


Enzymes are in charge of breaking down endocannabinoids when they have completed their functions. The two key enzymes responsible for breaking down the endocannabinoids are; fatty acid amide hydrolase- this breaks down AEA, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase- this usually breaks down 2-AG.

The ECS is a complex system, and experts are yet to fully understand how it works and all of its potential functions. However, it is understood that the ECS helps to stabilise the internal environment- homeostasis, and is believed by experts that maintaining homeostasis is the prime function of the ECS. If you do not use cannabis or any cannabis products, the ECS still exists and is active within your body.