The Endocannabinoid System is a cell-signaling system discovered relatively recently by scientists in the 1990’s and is present in all vertebrates. For us, it seems the main function of the endocannabinoid system is to help the body maintain homeostasis; the stability, balance, or equilibrium within a cell or the body, or biological harmony in response to changes in the environment.
It’s interesting to know that the endocannabinoid system was discovered by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid. Cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis. The ECS exists and is active in your body even if you don’t use cannabis.
When scientists discovered endocannabinoids, or the natural cannabis-like molecules produced by the human body, they began to realize cannabis exerted its effects, in part, by mimicking our own endocannabinoids.
Early research showed endocannabinoid receptors were only present in the brain and nerves, but scientists later discovered that the receptors are present throughout the body, including our skin, immune cells, bone, fat tissue, liver, pancreas, skeletal muscle, heart, blood vessels, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract.
A fun fact about the endocannabinoid system is that this system is very old, having evolved over 500 million years ago.
Although there is still much to be learned about this complex system, what we do know is that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in a variety of physiological processes, including pain, memory, mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism, immune function, and reproductive function. Endocannabinoids can be considered one of the most widespread and versatile signaling molecules known to modern day medicine.
How Does The Endocannabinoid System Work?
The ECS involves three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.
Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids, but they’re produced by your body.
Experts have identified two key endocannabinoids so far:
These help keep your body’s internal functions running smoothly. Your body produces them as needed, making it difficult to know what typical levels are for each person.
These receptors are found throughout your body. Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to act.
There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:
For example, endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders.
Once the endocannabinoids have carried out their intended functions, they’re broken down by enzymes.
There are two main enzymes that contribute to this:
What Are The Endocannabinoid System’s Functions?
The ECS is complicated, and experts haven’t yet determined exactly how it works or all of its potential functions.
Some scientific and medical studies have linked the endocannabinoid system to the following bodily systems:
Based on what we currently know about the ECS, many medical scientists believe the primary function of the endocannabinoid system is to promote homeostasis.
CBD’s Relationship With The Endocannabinoid System
The other major cannabinoid found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t have a psychoactive affect.
Experts aren’t completely sure how CBD interacts with the ECS. But they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors the way THC does.
There may be a correlation between CBD and preventing endocannabinoids from being broken down, which might allow them to have a greater effect on your body. Some believe that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t been discovered yet.
Either way, there’s still much to be learned about the endocannabinoid system, and how it interacts to stimulation from various cannabinoids.
More so, science and medicine are quite interested in learning more about what kind of benefits these compounds may have on the body’s physiological processes.
What If Your Endocannabinoid System Doesn’t Work Right?
Some experts believe in a theory known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). While only a theory, this concept suggests that low endocannabinoid levels in your body or ECS dysfunction can contribute to the development of certain conditions.
Researchers are racing to learn more about whether or not issues with the endocannabinoid system might be responsible for some difficult-to-diagnose conditions that don’t have a clear underlying cause and can be resistant to treatment, such as migraines or fibromyalgia, to name a few.
If CECD does play a role in these conditions, targeting the ECS or endocannabinoid production could be the missing key to treatment, but more research is needed on the subject to know for sure.
The ECS Wrap-up
As we’re beginning to learn more about The Endocannabinoid System, we seem to be discovering that it plays a big role in keeping our internal processes stable. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. As experts develop a better understanding of the ECS, it could eventually hold a key to treating several conditions and maintaining a healthier, happier life.
And don't forget to check out some of our other blog posts, like our introductory blog post, CBD 101: An Introduction To CBD Oil, or our post on Mindful Consumption: Tips On How To Enjoy CBD To The Fullest.