The onset of legalized cannabis has sparked a rapid increase in consumption throughout the US, and while approximately 18% of the US population has admitted to using cannabis within the last year, over91% of the country feels that either recreational or medicinal cannabis should be legal. As more states continue to legalize, it’s likely that the percentage of Americans consuming cannabis will also increase. However, although so many of us already enjoy cannabis products, and even more of us are curious to try cannabis again, or maybe for the first time, most people do not realize that our bodies are already naturally equipped to interact with cannabis.
What do we mean by that? All humans are equipped with an internal endocannabinoid system (ECS), in other words, a biological system comprised of endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes. The ECS was first discovered by scientists in the 1990’s while studying THC and is believed to help regulate a variety of basic functions for humans. For example, it is believed that the ECS helps memory, sleep, pain, mood, appetite and even reproduction, and fertility.
The ECS is active and exists in all of us, regardless of whether or not you’re a cannabis user. Likewise, experts are still trying to fully understand the ECS, but what we do know so far is that the ECS plays a vital role in the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. In other words, the body wants to maintain a stable internal environment, especially when faced with external stresses, for example, pain when we are injured.
3 Main Components
The three main components of the ECS are Endocannabinoids, Receptors, and Enzymes.
Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring molecules produced by our bodies, similar to cannabinoids such as THC or CBD which are chemical compounds secreted by cannabis flowers. Both endogenous cannabinoids produced by our bodies and the cannabinoids found in cannabis are essential to maintaining homeostasis and provide relief to symptoms ranging from nausea, anxiety, inflammation, and many more. Experts have identified two major endocannabinoids within our bodies thus far: anandamide (AEA) and2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG). Our bodies produce these as needed to maintain homeostasis, and continued research will allow us to have a more in-depth understanding of endocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoid Receptors are receptors located at the surface of our cells throughout our bodies, that endocannabinoids bind to. As this process happens, it signals our bodies to take a specific action. In other words, these receptors are listening to changing conditions outside of our cells, and then communicating that to the inside of our cells, causing a certain and specific cellular response. There are two main endocannabinoid receptors: CB1 receptors, which are mostly found in the central nervous system and brain. These are also the receptors that THC binds to when a person feels “high.”CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system, especially immune cellsEndocannabinoids can bind to either receptor, however, the resulting effects depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to.
Enzymes are the third part of the endocannabinoid system and are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function. There are two main enzymes responsible for this: Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down AEAMonoacylglycerol Acid Lipase (MAGL), which typically breaks down 2-AGThese enzymes ensure that endocannabinoids get used when they’re needed, but not for longer than necessary.
What is the Purpose of the Endocannabinoid System?
As discussed earlier, the primary function of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis within the human body. For example, when you are sick and have a fever, this would signal your endocannabinoid system to engage in an effort to return your body to a stable internal environment. Although our research and understanding of the endocannabinoid system is limited, it is believed that the ECS plays an active role in the following:
- learning and memory
- liver function
- inflammation and other immune system responses
- appetite and digestion
- motor control
- chronic pain
- cardiovascular system function
- muscle formation
- bone remodeling and growth
- reproductive system function
- skin and nerve function