The Endocannabinoid System and Human Health

By Veronica Castillo

What is the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)?

We all have one, an endocannabinoid system in our bodies that naturally produce cannabis like molecules/cannabinoids. That’s right, humans like Cannabis, naturally create cannabinoids. And like plant Cannabis, the endocannabinoid system within the human body, also adapts and adjusts to respond to changes in the environment.

Here are some interesting facts about the endocannabinoid system from UCLA Health:

  • The main function of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain bodily homeostasis.
  • Taxonomic investigation revealed that the endocannabinoid system evolved over 500 million years ago.
  • The endocannabinoid system is present in all vertebrates: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, etc.
  • Endocannabinoid receptors are present throughout the body: skin, immune cells, bone, fat tissue, liver, pancreas, skeletal muscle, heart, blood vessels, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract.
  • The endocannabinoid system is involved in a wide variety of processes, including pain, memory, mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism, immune function, and reproductive function.

The Human Endocannabinoid System Discovery

The United States government placed Cannabis on a schedule 1(the highest schedule- meaning the most dangerous) next to dangerous drugs, when the truth is, Cannabis and the human body have a connection that no other plant has to the human body. The US National Library of Medicine says this:

The endogenous cannabinoid system—named for the plant that led to its discovery—is one of the most important physiologic systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health. With its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and virtually all of the body’s organs, the endocannabinoids are literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system, we begin to see a mechanism that could connect brain activity and states of physical health and disease.

Lumír Hanuš, a Czech analytical chemist and American pharmacologist William Devane, isolated the first known endocannabinoid in the human brain in 1992. They named it anandamide (many know it by serotonin), after the Sanskrit word for joy or bliss. Leafly says:

The discovery of anandamide confirmed that the human brain produces cannabinoids of its own, which bind with cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body. Evidence suggests these cannabinoid receptors are involved in motor coordination, memory processing, control of appetite, pain modulation, neuroprotection, and more.”

How the Human Endocannabinoid System Works

The endocannabinoid system has endocannabinoid receptors which are located throughout the human body. Endocannabinoids bind to them to signal the ECS needs to take action when needed. Healthline reports two main endocannabinoid receptors: CB1 receptors, mostly found in the central nervous system and CB2 receptors, mostly found in the peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells.

Here’s an example that Healthline used that breaks it down in basic terms:

Endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in immune cells to signal that the body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders. Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The effects that result depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.

There are multiple endocannabinoids that play a role in the human endocannabinoid system. All of them seem to play a role in anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-metastatic effects. They have a role in neurotransmitter, immune system, and mitochondrial function as well. Like Cannabis has two main cannabinoids: THC and CBD, the endocannabinoid system has two main endocannabinoids: anandamide and 2-archidonyl glycerol (2-AG).  

Cannabis and the Human Endocannabinoid System

In a piece written for Norml, by Dustin Sulak, DO, the following statement was made:

“Research has shown that small doses of cannabinoids from cannabis can signal the body to make more endocannabinoids and build more cannabinoid receptors.”

CBD: it’s not an exact match for CB1 or CB2 receptors. CBD stimulates both receptors and causes a reaction without binding directly, creating changes in cells that contain them. CBD also binds to a protein-receptor couple, TRPV-1, responsible for regulating body temperature, pain, and inflammation.

THC: creates a high because it activates the CB1 receptor within the brain. Endocannabinoids like anandamide also activate CB1.

Because cannabis can function as mass stimulation to the endocannabinoid system, and phyto-cannabinoids can mimic the action of endocannabinoids, the body recognizes phyto-cannabinoids as endocannabinoids. When endocannabinoids have fulfilled their purpose, enzymes in the body break them down.

In Closing

The importance of the marriage between cannabis and human biology rests in this statement made by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam:

By using a plant that has been around for thousands of years, we discovered a new physiological system of immense importance”.

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