Unlike other systems in the body, such as circulatory, digestive, nervous, etc., the endocannabinoid system was not discovered until 1988, when scientists identified the first cannabinoid receptor in a rat. And in 1990, researchers at the National Academy of Medicine found that cannabinoid receptors are present throughout our bodies, with the highest concentrations located in our immune cells, central nervous system and organs.
Viewed within the scope of all scientific discoveries since humans first walked upright, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is new. Despite its novelty, the endocannabinoid system is important, and it explains why CBD works. So, we provide a basic primer here.
The Endocannabinoid System: What We Know
We have learned a great deal about the ECS in the last 30 years:
The ECS in harmony with the many other systems maintains our body’s homeostasis, which is the steady state or optimal function of our internal systems. While the ECS is a separate and unique system, it wields enormous influence over our body’s other systems.
Despite its name, the ECS does not need cannabis the plant and its constituent phytocannabinoids to function. The ECS explains why and how cannabis affects our bodies, but cannabis is not the reason why the ECS exists. We have an ECS no matter whether we consume cannabis or not.
While it is true that ingested cannabis interacts with our ECS, our bodies can and do make their own endocannabinoids — “endo” comes from the Greek word, endon, which means “within.”
Phytocannabinoids, on the other hand, are cannabinoids derived from plants. Some phytocannabinoids act just like endocannabinoids within the ECS, with the exception that the body does not produce them organically. CBD produced from hemp and THC produced from marijuana are the best-known phytocannabinoids; scientists have identified more than 100 others. There also are synthetic cannabinoids. Scientists use the term “cannabinoids” to refer to all chemicals that react with the ECS, no matter their source.
Among playing other roles, cannabinoids seem to help reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure and heart rate, interrupt pain stimuli, inhibit the proliferation of malignant cells, and make emotionally or physically painful memories less so.
The body produces endocannabinoids to respond to environmental stimuli —pain, exercise, stress and hunger all can trigger endocannabinoid production. Interestingly, singing and dancing can also.
Ruth A. Ross, PhD, is chairperson and professor of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Toronto. In this TEDx talk, she explains endocannabinoids in a simple way, made even more appealing by her charming Scottish accent. We’ve trimmed her presentation here but you can find her entire lecture online.
The Endocannabinoid System: How It Works, or Locks and Keys
Put very simply, the ECS consists of endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and enzymes, all working together to maintain homeostasis.
Think of the system this way...
• An endocannabinoid is a key,
• A cannabinoid receptor is a lock, and
• Enzymes are the hidden treasure stashed inside a locked box, working to break down excess endocannabinoids in order to keep the ECS system in balance.
The endocannabinoids — the keys — include...
• Anandamine or AEA. Some call this the “bliss” molecule because it activates the body’s internal reward feeling. Interestingly, some research has shown that the happy rush you experience after a great exercise workout may be created by AEA, rather than endorphins.
• 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol, or 2-AG. This regulates immune and inflammation responses.
While there are likely more endocannabinoids, AEA and 2-AG are the endocannabinoids scientists understand the most.
The cannabinoid receptors — the locks — are...
• These receptors are found mostly in the central nervous system and GI system. Scientists believe CB1 receptors regulate appetite, sleep, memory and chronic pain.
• Found mostly in the peripheral nervous system, these receptors regulate immune and inflammatory responses.