A Brief Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System
In order to gain a better understanding of how plant produced cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, influence not just psychological, but physical and emotional responses too, it’s important to first understand the endocannabinoid system.
While it's not the first lesson learned in school biology class, it should be as it is one of the most important regulatory systems within our bodies. After all, all mammals have an endocannabinoid system; speculated to have begun evolving some 600 million years ago, back in a period when the most complex creatures living on earth were sponges. It has since evolved to help us to internally manage both internal and external environmental influences and stressors and ensures the rest of our systems can continue to smoothly function.
The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating many parts of our lives from the very beginning to the very end. How? Because a functioning endocannabinoid system will foster a fertile environment within the ovaries to allow the fertilized egg to attach to the uterine wall. Then, as we age, many of the associated issues with aging, such as an increased risk of disease, a decline in memory function, and an increase in general pain and inflammation, are all caused at least in part from a decline in endocannabinoid function.
This system is vital for the day to day regulation of our appetite, it manages pain perception and inflammatory responses, it also is an essential component of our immune and central nervous systems. Within our brains the endocannabinoid system protects nerve cells from damage and death, it supports neurogenesis and increases cognitive function, plus influences emotions, mood and motor skills. For a system that remains under the radar of most biology classes, it cannot be denied as an essential component of human life.
The endocannabinoid system was only discovered recently, in 1990, by Lisa Matsuda and her associates at the National Institute of Mental Health. Surprisingly, this discovery was made only because of the decades of work and research into the cannabinoids found in cannabis. Although scientists had long suspected that there were receptors to fit the molecules within cannabis, much like opioids fit into opioid receptors in our brains, the quest to find such a receptor was unsuccessful throughout the 70s and 80s. It was by using a synthetic cannabinoid that researchers were finally able to radioactively pinpoint where these receptors were located throughout the body, and with this information they were able to develop a sort of map, leading to the discovery and naming of this complex and nuanced endocannabinoid system.
These days we now know that there are actually two main types of receptors within the endocannabinoid system. The first one to be discovered was called the CB1 receptor, which is found mostly concentrated throughout the brain and more limitedly throughout the rest of the body. This receptor manages mood, pain, memory and appetite, plus is responsible for the psychoactive response to cannabinoids like THC. The other receptor, called CB2, was discovered much later, and is found primarily within the immune system and to a lesser extent throughout the organs. It is currently understood to play an important role in immune function, as well as playing a role in neurodegeneration (or its potential for stimulating regeneration).
The system itself, a complex network of receptors, acts like a massively interconnected system of microscopic sensors, which are constantly scanning the area around them in order to pick up any biochemical communications. It is able to interact with three main substances, including naturally produced endocannabinoids, cannabis-derived phytocannabinoids, and synthetically produced cannabinoids created within laboratories. Depending on which cannabinoid is available, it will trigger a response from either the CB1 or CB2 receptor. Not all cannabinoids will trigger all receptors, and not all will trigger the same response. For example, the most famous phytocannabinoid found in cannabis is THC, and it locks perfectly with the CB1 receptor (imagine a key fitting into a lock), but it doesn’t seem to affect any other receptors. In another example, cannabidiol has been evidenced to stimulate the CB1 receptor but doesn’t lock into it as neatly.
The endocannabinoid system is responsible for protecting us from internal and external stressors, and for maintaining a healthy homeostasis within our bodies. In recent clinical trials in Europe, which were studying endocannabinoid suppressing drugs, researchers tragically discovered just how important this system is.
Suppressing participants’ endocannabinoid systems, unfortunately, led to two deaths, plus a myriad of issues with dysfunction and disease. While the research into this system is only in its infancy, it's very clearly a vital component to life. It has opened up the doors to a vastly new understanding of the human body, plus is creating brand new possibilities for treatment of disease and illness. Thanks to its discovery, we are able to more accurately understand exactly why humans react to stressors in the way they do.
Blesching, Uwe. The Cannabis Health Index. North Atlantic Books, 2015. Print.