By now you’ve probably heard about the many benefits of CBD as a means of promoting wellness. Next to THC, it’s the most widely known compound found in cannabis. But how does CBD work with the endocannabinoid system to produce these beneficial effects?
Let’s start by understanding what the endocannabinoid system is and why it’s important.
The endocannabinoid system made simple
The endocannabinoid system is a mechanism of homeostasis. It’s role is to create a state of balance in the human body. When a system is out of balance—pain regulation or the immune system, for example—the endocannabinoid receptors bind to the cannabinoids to help address the problem.
Endocannabinoids influence other physiological processes very precisely. Once the ECS brings the system back into a state of balance, enzymes go to work to break down the cannabinoids or endocannabinoids to prevent overcorrecting the problem.
While this is by no means an exhaustive explanation of the complex processes of the ECS, we hope it provides enough information to help you understand the basics of how cannabinoids works with the endocannabinoid system.
Endo is short for endogenous, which means something that is produced naturally inside of the human body. Cannabinoid means from cannabis. So the endocannabinoid system is a system of cannabis-like substances that naturally occur within our bodies.
The endocannabinoid system—or ECS for short—is comprised of three parts: endocannabinoids, receptors in the nervous system and in your body that endocannabinoids and cannabinoids bond with, and enzymes that help break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids.
The ECS influences or helps to regulate complex biological functions such as learning and memory, reproduction, metabolism, growth and development, anxiety and arousal, and digestion, pain and reflexes, and immune response.
Below we break down each of the parts and explore how CBD can influence the ECS.
1. Endonnabinoids are naturally-occuring lipid-based neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are often referred to as chemical messengers in the body, transmitting signals from nerve cells to target cells in muscles, glands, or other organs. Two of the main endocannabinoids identified include:
—Anandamide (AEA or arachidonoyl ethanolamide)
—2-archidonoyl glyerol (2-AG)
Researchers believe there may be other endocannabinoids in the body, but their roles and functions are not definitively known at this time. Most of the current research focuses on anandamide and 2-AG.
2. Endocannabinoid receptors
Cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors present on the surface of cells throughout the body. Endocannabinoids attach to the receptors, which sends a message to the ECS to initiate a response.
There are two primary ECS receptors: CB1 and CB2
CB1 receptors are present mainly in the central nervous system (CNS). CB1 Receptors are found primarily on nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, but have also been found in other organs and tissues such as the spleen, lungs, liver, and kidneys, and in the reproductive and endocrine systems. Because CB1 receptors are so abundant in the brain, cannabinoids can have profound impacts on functions like memory processing, pain regulation and motor control.
CB2 receptors are found primarily in the peripheral nervous system (PNS). CB2 receptors are located mainly in the immune system, as well as in the tonsils and spleen. The immune cells also express CB1, although there are fewer of them than CB2.
In the immune system, one important function of the cannabinoid receptors is the regulation of cytokine release. Stimulation of the CB1 receptor produces marijuana-like effects on the psyche and circulation, while no such effect is seen when the CB2 receptor is activated. Therefore, selective CB2 receptor agonists have become increasingly popular subjects of research for their potential anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.
Endocannabinoids attach to either CB1 or CB2 receptors, causing different reactions depending on the location of the receptor in the body. For example, an endocannabinoid that binds to a CB1 receptor in the brain may signal pain relief or motor control, whereas one that binds to a CB2 receptor in the heart may signal a protective anti-inflammation response.
The role of enzymes in the endocannabinoid systems
Unlike other chemical messengers, endocannabinoids are not stored in the body. Once their work is done, they must be metabolized and eliminated. This happens primarily by enzymatic processes. The enzymes that carry out this important function are fatty acid amide hydrolase which breaks down AEA and monoacylglycerol acid lipase which breaks down 2-AG.
The endocannabinoid system is the homeostatic regulator of human physiology. Homeostasis is a balanced system that is neither over-active or under-active. The endocannabinoid system is there to try and maintain that balance.”
—DR ETHAN RUSSO