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A Beginner’s Guide to the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

A Beginner's Guide to the Endocannabinoid System

Whether you are new to CBD or not, you may likely have heard about the endocannabinoid system, also known as the ECS. But how much do you know about this biological system? Did you know that cannabinoids similar to those produced in Cannabis are also produced right within our very own body? If this is news to you, you’re going to want to keep reading.

This handy guide will give you a comprehensive understanding of the subject.

An Overview of the Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a cell-signaling system. The ECS is comprised of endogenous endocannabinoids—compounds found in humans and animals and similar to those in cannabis. It was discovered by experts in the ’90s looking into the effects of cannabis on a molecular level. In particular, they were looking into the effects of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

There are two other components of the ECS: receptors and receptor enzymes.

Despite the identification of the ECS, medical experts still do not understand it all. What we know so far is that it plays a part in regulating a range of functions in our bodies.

Cannabinoid Receptors

The Three Essential Components of ECS

We already know three things make up the ECS—but what do they do? Let’s go into a bit more detail on them.

1. Endogenous Endocannabinoids

First up, we have endogenous endocannabinoids. These chemical compounds get produced by cells and act like THC—the part of cannabis that gets you “high.” Endogenous means that these molecules get generated by your body.

There are two types of endocannabinoids:

Both endocannabinoids derive from omega-6 fatty acids. They ensure the smooth running of your body’s internal functions and get made when needed.

2. Endocannabinoid Receptors

Next, we have the endocannabinoid receptors. They get synthesized (created) on the cell membrane from the omega-6 fatty acid precursors. The endocannabinoids bind to these receptors to make them do something.

Researchers have so far discovered two types of endocannabinoid receptors:

  • Cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1 receptors). Encoded in the human CNR1 gene, they often get expressed in your central nervous system.
  • Cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2 receptors). They get encoded in the CNR2 gene and expressed in your peripheral nervous system.

Endogenous endocannabinoids can bind to either CB1 or CB2 receptors. The result of that process depends on the receptor location.

3. Endocannabinoid Receptor Enzymes

Last, but not least, there are the receptor enzymes. These are responsible for breaking down endogenous endocannabinoids once they’ve done their work.

Two necessary receptor enzymes carry out these functions:

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). Encoded in the FAAH gene, they break down anandamide (AEA).
  • Monoacylglycerol acid lipase (MAGL). They are responsible for breaking down 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol (2-AG). In our bodies, they get encoded in the MGLL gene.

The Purpose of the Endocannabinoid System

So far, we have an understanding of the endocannabinoid system and its components. But why does the ECS exist, and what is its role in our bodies?

Well, it’s a critical physiologic system essential to establishing and maintaining our health. Endogenous endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes are in all parts of our bodies. They exist from our brains right through to our immune cells.

The system as a whole may perform different functions in our body. But their goal is always the same: to maintain stability in internal functions. The medical term for that is homeostasis.

We can think of endogenous endocannabinoids and their associated components as messengers. That’s because they allow communication between different cell types around our bodies!

Here’s an example: let’s say that you have injured yourself from a paper cut. Endocannabinoids located at the injury site calm your body’s immune cells down. They do that to prevent the release of pro-inflammatory substances.

Another thing they do is stabilize the nerve cells to lower pain levels and tissue damage. In a sense, endogenous endocannabinoids link your body and mind together!

Medical experts still have a lot to learn about how the ECS functions as a whole in our bodies. But what they do know is that the ECS has a link to the following:

  • Chronic pain
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • The cardiovascular system
  • Liver functions

Other processes get linked as well, such as our metabolism, sleep, memory, and more.

Cannabinoid Research

Cannabidiol (CBD) and the ECS

The popularity of CBD is no doubt due to the way it interacts with the endocannabinoid system. Medical researchers aren’t 100% sure how CBD and the ECS interact with one another.

What they do know is that CBD doesn’t bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors like other cannabinoids (such as THC). Some experts believe CBD prevents endocannabinoids from getting broken down in your body. Others feel CBD binds to an as-yet-undiscovered receptor.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the ECS

As you know, THC is the cannabinoid that gets you high. When it gets into your body, it binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors, the same as endocannabinoids.

THC has noticeable euphoric effects. But researchers are trying to find out if it could have beneficial medicinal effects, too. For example, a synthetic form of THC could reduce pain from injuries.

The challenge for experts is determining how to make that happen without side effects. After all, they don’t want to create medicine that triggers anxiety or paranoia in people. That is why CBD is the preferable option.

Why is the General Public Barely Learning About the ECS?

As a child at school, you would have been taught about the major organ systems in our bodies. The thing is, it’s unlikely you would have heard about the endocannabinoid system!

The reason for that is simple: the medical world has only known about the ECS since the 1990s. However, it’s an essential physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.

In 1990, Dr. Lisa A. Matsuda and three of her colleagues published a medical journal. In it, they documented the structure and functional expression of the CB1 receptor. Since then, other receptors have been identified.

Of course, research into cannabis and its components didn’t start in 1990. Almost three decades prior, two researchers from Israel discovered THC. In 1964, Raphael Mechoulam and Y. Gaoni were the first people to isolate and synthesize THC.

The medical world learned more about the pharmacology and clinical effects of cannabis. But no one knew how THC affects the body until 1990.

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency

The ECS, like other organ systems in our bodies, is essential to our well-being. It’s clear that there is still a lot of research needed on this subject. But one interesting medical journal from 2016 may shed some further light on the ECS.

Dr. Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist, published an article about endocannabinoid deficiency. In it, he says current research supports past theories about some medical conditions.

According to his article, syndromes like fibromyalgia could be due to low ECS levels. Other examples of treatment-resistant syndromes include migraines and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Although there is still more research to do on the subject, the findings revealed by studies on the relationship of cannabinoids like CBD and the ECS are absolutely amazing.

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