The Endocannabinoid System [Explained]
Whether you use marijuana for its mind-altering effects or its medicinal benefits, you might be wondering why exactly it acts upon your body this way. Well, it’s all thanks to the endocannabinoid system. If you’ve been involved in the world of weed for a long time, you might have heard about this already; or you might be a complete novice just looking into how marijuana affects the body.
When talking about the endocannabinoid system, the topic can get pretty complicated, especially since it encompasses so many bits of knowledge. But don’t worry, this article is here to break it down and explain to you what the endocannabinoid system is and what it’s got to do with weed. First, let’s take a look at what’s in marijuana…
What are cannabinoids?
Cannabis has a vast array of different compounds that all do slightly different things. These compounds are known as cannabinoids, and they are also what qualify this natural plant as a drug.
Scientists have managed to isolate 113 different cannabinoids in the plant, with more possibly on the route to discovery. However, you probably won’t have heard of most of these chemical compounds. The most well-known three cannabinoids are THC, CBD and CBN, which have the most research conducted on them.
Something to note at this point is that there’s a difference between naturally produced cannabinoids (those that grow naturally in the plant) and those produced synthetically. Natural cannabinoids are known as phytocannabinoids.
But did you know that natural cannabinoids are not just produced in the cannabis plant? They are also produced in our very own bodies. These are known as endocannabinoids, and you can think of them as our body’s own THC. It is the natural presence of these compounds that helps to form the endocannabinoid system.
What is the ECS and what does it do?
The endocannabinoid system, shortened as the ECS, describes a collection of cell receptors and corresponding compounds. These chemical compounds engage with receptors in order to maintain the body’s homeostasis.
Basically, homeostasis refers to the balance within the body. Think of it like Goldilocks and the three bears: our body needs to maintain a temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. And this isn’t just to do with temperature, either: the body experiences homeostasis for a variety of other conditions, including water content, carbon dioxide level, and blood sugar level, among others.
Since the system is made up of cannabinoid receptors, the ECS can interact with the compounds occurring in the cannabis plant in order to achieve different effects. This is why certain cannabinoids have been found to have medicinal benefits; they stimulate a natural response in our bodies.
This is just a brief overview of what the ECS actually does – in short, it helps us to achieve homeostasis – and we’ll come back to this later with reference to specific functions and their relation to marijuana.
If it’s so important, why have I never heard of it before?
This is a question that you might, understandably, be thinking. The hidden nature of the endocannabinoid system is, in part, due to its late discovery. Scientists realized that the brain has an opiate receptor all the way back in 1973, but the ECS was not even hinted at until 1988 when Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered brain receptors that respond to compounds in cannabis.
During the 1990s, more discoveries were made pertaining to cannabinoids and the brain, and knowledge about the ECS began to spread. Even still, they don’t teach about the endocannabinoid system in medical school, and many practitioners and physicians are still unaware of how influential this biological system actually is.
This lack of knowledge means that there are still a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to the ECS, particularly regarding how our bodies make endocannabinoids. Hopefully, as science continues to reveal new things about the ECS, it will emerge from the shadows and no longer be a secret.
Features of the endocannabinoid system
There are many key parts to the ECS which allow it to work. Three main components are discussed below:
- The cannabinoid receptors
- Metabolic enzymes.
Endocannabinoids have already been mentioned in this article. While phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD are found in the cannabis plant and can also interact with the ECS, endocannabinoids occur naturally within the body. The two major endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG. Like many biological molecules, these are only produced when needed.
The cannabinoid receptors are found on the surface of cells. You can think of the receptors and the endocannabinoids themselves as locks and keys – the receptors are the locks, and the cannabinoids are the keys. When the receptors detect changes in the body, they pass along messages to the brain to produce endocannabinoids, which then attach to these receptors in order to achieve a specific effect. There are two major cannabinoid receptors: CB1, which binds to THC, and CB2, which binds to CBD. CB2 receptors are generally abundant in places like the immune system, while CB1 receptors are scattered throughout the brain.
Finally, there are the metabolic enzymes, which destroy endocannabinoids once they have fulfilled their goal. The main enzymes are FAAH, which breads down anandamide, and MAGL, which breaks down 2-AG. Metabolic enzymes are important because they stop endocannabinoids for being used for longer than they need to.
Functions of the endocannabinoid system: Why is cannabis beneficial?
Unknown as it may be, the ECS is absolutely vital for our body and health. It has a vast number of functions that can be unlocked via cannabinoids – this is why so many people are experiencing medicinal benefits when they smoke or ingest weed. Let’s take a look at a few of the functions the ECS has.
Numerous myths will tell you that smoking weed will give you the munchies, but in reality, this depends on a number of factors including the specific marijuana strain you smoke. That said, marijuana smokers do consume up to 600 more calories per day than the average non-smoker, but strangely enough, they don’t necessarily put on weight.
When we feel hungry, anandamide is released into the ECS. However, when you ingest cannabis, THC replaces the anandamide and activates the CB1 receptors. Now, in theory, over-activating this receptor should make you fatter by making you crave fatty, sugary foods. However, CBD counteracts this by forcing the CB1 receptors to deactivate when you eat. This is very complicated, but it just goes to show why we understand so little about marijuana and its effects.
Since CBD has the effect of suppressing appetites, and THC has the effect of increasing appetite, patients of a variety of conditions can use different cannabis strains to treat conditions. People suffering from diabetes and obesity, for example, might benefit profusely from high-CBD strains, whereas the likes of chemotherapy patients who find it difficult to eat would avail of the appetite-inducing properties of THC,
There are various stages of the sleep cycle, with the most important being deep sleep. Coincidentally, it is this stage which is also the most affected by marijuana. A study* has found that THC causes your body to spend extended periods of time in deep sleep. This does not necessarily mean you will sleep longer; THC reduces the time spent in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, meaning you will dream less but sleep heavier. This all occurs thanks to the endocannabinoid system, which usually releases compounds that make you feel sleepy or alert; when THC interacts with the CB1 receptors, you will be able to fall into a deeper sleep.
There are benefits and drawbacks to these effects. In terms of disadvantages, deep sleep can leave individuals feeling groggy and irritable in the mornings. Furthermore, REM sleep actually helps us to formulate short-term memories, so consolidating memories might be more difficult if you smoke a lot of MJ.
That being said, not getting enough deep sleep can be very harmful for our health, and certain conditions do prevent people from sleeping properly – perhaps due to some sort of fault in the ECS. Insomnia and sleep deprivation are unsuspectingly dangerous, and it is vital to find a way to get a good night’s sleep. Fortunately, cannabis can offer a welcome break for sufferers of these ailments; getting a THC hit before bedtime will definitely help you get a good night’s rest for once!
Note, however, that you should only be smoking certain strains before bed. Sativa strains are likely to make you feel energetic, so avoid these and adopt for a sleep-inducing Indica strain to help you drift off.
Anybody who has imbibed cannabis before will know about how it can affect your mood in the shirt-term. The brain, of course, has its own mood regulators, including serotonin and dopamine, which can help to make you happy or create adrenaline.
In the case of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, these neurotransmitters fail to operate properly and cause hormonal imbalances that lead to low moods. THC, in relatively small doses, helps to activate cannabinoid receptors in the brain that reverse this effect, allowing you to elevate your mood and get rid of those depressing symptoms.
Some research has shown that large quantities of THC can have the opposite of a desired effect; overactive CB1 receptors can lead to paranoia and psychosis. However, the ‘entourage effect’ of marijuana often allows for CBD to mellow out the potent effects of THC, meaning that, as long as you control your doses, you are not at a high risk of developing mental health issues. Instead, Mary Jane could help to quell your feelings of low mood by kicking the ECS back into action.
Pain & immune function
Numerous studies have shown that cannabis can help to fight pain, which is why so many sufferers of chronic pain have turned to potent strains of the herb to get rid of their incessant discomfort.
What’s more is that it can help to improve immune function in people with auto-immune disease like Lupus and Macrophage Activation Syndrome, or even multiple sclerosis. This is because the ECS helps to regulate the immune system, and any diseases such as these may be caused by a disfunction within the ECS itself. By ingesting external cannabinoids – i.e., those found in cannabis – sufferers of these conditions may be able to self-medicate and get rid of some of the unpleasant symptoms of autoimmune diseases, including fatigue, pain, and low mood.
Final thoughts on the ECS
The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is an extremely important body system. It helps to regulate a number of functions, including appetite, sleep, mood, the immune system, and many others including temperature and even fertility. Disruption in the ECS can lead to a number of issues. For example, some scientists have suggested that conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are caused by a lack of endocannabinoids.
As more and more research is conducted into the science of marijuana, the future looks bright, since cannabis could prove extremely beneficial in fighting conditions that arise due to a fault in the ECS. As we have seen in this article, that could be a whole host of conditions!