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The Endocannabinoid System: Understanding the Body’s Cannabis Receptors

Body and Mind
Body and Mind August 7, 2023

The endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS) is the reason cannabis works. It’s a complex biological system at the core of many important functions we rely upon every day. Without the endocannabinoid system, cannabis wouldn’t affect us at all. This guide looks into how the ECS works, why it’s important and how it relates to cannabis. 

A Deeper Look: What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system, or the ECS for short, is responsible for maintaining homeostasis – in other words, balancing and stabilizing critical processes needed for survival – throughout our brains and bodies. It plays a role in regulating mood, appetite, sleep, learning, memory, pain perception and inflammatory and immune responses, among others. The endocannabinoid system is also the reason cannabis affects us the way it does; the phytocannabinoids in cannabis influence this system in myriad ways that researchers are only beginning to understand.

What Are The Components of The Endocannabinoid System?

To better understand the ECS, it’s helpful to break it down into its constituent parts. Here’s a closer look at each:

  • Cannabinoid receptors: The cannabinoid receptors of the ECS are essential for signaling what type of action needs to be taken and where to maintain homeostasis. These primary cannabinoid receptors are the CB1 receptors, clustered mostly in the central nervous system (CNS), and the CB2 receptor, mainly located in the peripheral nervous system and immune system, including immune cells. These two primary cannabinoid receptors are the most well-known and studied. Both are known as G protein-coupled receptors and interact with the endocannabinoids produced within the ECS to influence its effects.
  • Enzymes: The ECS cannot synthesize or recycle endocannabinoids without enzymes like fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL). These enzymes are essential for modulating endocannabinoid levels in the ECS, helping keep the system balanced as needed.

Where is the Endocannabinoid System in Your Body?

The ECS is a sprawling, vast cannabinoid receptor system of cannabinoids and enzymes throughout the human body. All these parts work together to keep your body in balance. The ECS has a big job that extends to every part of your body, so it is no surprise that the ECS is present in virtually every part of your body too.

The Dance of the Cannabinoids: How They Interact with the Endocannabinoid System

Phytocannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, like Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD), can influence the ECS in a manner similar to endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG. The interactions between the ECS and phytocannabinoids are the reason cannabis affects us the way it does and imparts its therapeutic benefits and potential.

Not all phytocannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system in the same way, though. Researchers are still determining how each phytocannabinoid influences the cannabinoid receptors and larger ECS. Here’s what we know so far.

THC and the Endocannabinoid System

THC binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors, activating them. Because it binds to both receptor types, THC offers a wide range of effects beyond the well-known high it produces. It’s been effective for pain management and appetite stimulation, for example.

However, just because a phytocannabinoid can pull the levers of the ECS doesn’t mean every effect will be desirable or even predictable. For example, the ECS can influence feelings of fear and anxiety. In lower amounts, THC seems to provide relief from anxiety; however, in higher amounts, THC can exacerbate these same feelings. The ECS regulates fear and anxiety, and THC can influence it to move in either direction as an anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) or anxiogenic (anxiety-causing) compound.

CBD and the Endocannabinoid System

Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t appear to bind to either the CB1 receptors or CB2 receptors directly. It changes how other phytocannabinoids like THC bind to the receptors, modulating their effects throughout your body. For example, some studies have shown that the presence of higher levels of CBD may reduce the high associated with THC, though researchers are still investigating why this happens. CBD may inhibit endocannabinoid signaling, reducing the potency of other cannabinoids like THC. This type of cannabinoid-to-cannabinoid modulation is known as the entourage effect; a theory researchers are studying to better understand how multiple cannabinoids may influence one another when present in varying amounts. 

CBD has also been observed to bind to and activate TRPV1 receptors, known as ionotropic cannabinoid receptors. These cannabinoid receptors are best known for their pain management potential. In addition to CBD, these receptors are activated by heat and capsaicin. Eating spicy foods like chili peppers activates the same receptors as consuming CBD products.

Decoding the Messages: Understanding the Body’s Cannabis Receptors

Whether endocannabinoids or phytocannabinoids, these compounds can only affect the ECS by first going through the receptors. When these compounds bind to or otherwise influence the cannabinoid receptors, they signal to the ECS how it should respond, kicking off a series of effects.

The CB1 and CB2 receptors do this in different ways, each handling unique roles. Let’s dive deeper into each of these receptors, their location, and how they work with the ECS. 

CB1 Receptors

The CB1 receptors are primarily found in the CNS, particularly in the neocortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, cerebellum and brainstem. The CB1 receptors are thought to modulate the psychoactive effects of cannabinoids, such as the high THC causes. They’re also supposed to influence the release of neurotransmitters, which can affect mood, motivation and appetite. These receptors may also be related to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or Huntington’s disease.

CB2 Receptors

The CB2 receptors are primarily found in the peripheral nervous system, particularly the immune system. They are often found on white blood cells, closely associated with immune system responses. The CB2 receptors are thought to particularly influence inflammation, inflammatory pain and neuropathic pain, as well as immune system responses to certain illnesses.

What About Endocannabinoids?

Anandamide and 2-AG are among the most important to the system, so let’s look at each and how they work.

Anandamide

Anandamide, often called “the bliss molecule,” is closely linked to mood, motivation and the brain’s reward center. Anandamide’s relationship with CB1 receptors means it can influence the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which relate to feelings of happiness, euphoria, reward and reinforcement. It’s these characteristics that intrigue researchers to explore the therapeutic implications of this endocannabinoid. 

Once used, Anandamide is degraded by fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks the endocannabinoid down and recycles its components for future use in the body.

2-AG

2-Arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG for short, also interacts closely with CB1 receptors. It’s similar to anandamide in that it helps regulate emotion and cognition. 2-AG is also closely related to appetite regulation, stress response, pain management and immune system function. Once the ECS no longer needs 2-AG to maintain homeostasis in these areas, it’s degraded by MAGL and its components are recycled for future use.

Balancing Act: The Role of the Endocannabinoid System in Health and Well-Being

So, why is all this important? When the ECS works properly, it helps support your health and well-being. It can contribute to adverse symptoms and even chronic health conditions when it isn’t. Understanding how phytocannabinoids can influence the ECS to improve its functioning, then, can help you choose cannabis products that improve the way you feel and your quality of life.

The Endocannabinoid System and Cannabis: Potential Therapeutic Applications

Understanding how cannabinoids influence the ECS helps researchers to uncover its potential therapeutic applications. The following are examples of how the ECS may help you feel better.

  • Pain management: The ECS can address different types of chronic pain, including inflammatory pain and neuropathic pain. Both cannabinoid receptors are involved in the ECS’s nociceptive processing activity, and the right combinations of cannabinoids can help to alleviate feelings of pain.
    Anxiety management: The ECS’s impact on mood means it can play a role in anxiety management. These types of effects are generally mediated through the CB1 receptor, which can support the release of neurotransmitters that prompt an appropriate fear or anxiety response. The use of cannabinoids can influence the ECS to help quell anxiety; however, they can also exacerbate these feelings when misused.
  • Anti-nausea: The ECS has been reported by patients to prevent nausea and vomiting, whether related to motion sickness or anticipatory nausea, such as that seen in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment. THC, in particular, is thought to be especially effective in mitigating nausea and vomiting. The pharmaceuticals Dronabinol and Marinol, anti-nausea medications, are made with synthetic cannabinoids.
  • Anti-convulsion: The ECS could hold the key to preventing seizures and tremors in people living with conditions like epilepsy or multiple sclerosis (MS). In fact, CBD has been found to be such an effective anti-convulsant that Epidiolex, a medication that contains CBD as a primary ingredient, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of rare epileptic disorders Dravet’s syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
    Sleep promotion: The ECS also appears closely linked to sleep, and cannabinoid therapies may help promote more restful and sustained sleep. The ECS’s effects on sleep appear to be primarily mediated through the CB1 receptor, and THC is thought to produce hypnogenic, or sleep-causing, effects.
  • Immune system reinforcement: The ECS plays a crucial role in immune system regulation alongside cannabinoids and can support a healthy immune system. This support is generally thought to come from the activation of the CB2 receptors, though CB1 receptors may also play a role.

It’s important to note that while influencing the ECS with phytocannabinoids offers some therapeutic potential, cannabis is not a cure-all and should not be used as a replacement for condition treatment plans developed by your doctor. If you’re considering adding cannabis to your health and wellness routine, consult your doctor first, especially if you’re already undergoing treatment for a specific condition. 

Nourishing the Endocannabinoid System: Diet, Exercise, and Lifestyle

To help your ECS work at full capacity, it’s essential to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle. The below lifestyle changes can help support your endocannabinoid system’s well-being.

  • Maintain a nutritious diet: When your body has the fuel it needs, it can more effectively fight off illnesses and support you throughout your day. Ensure your diet contains the right balance of nutrients, including protein, fiber, fat and carbohydrates. Avoid highly processed or sugary foods in favor of fresh foods. Consider taking a daily multivitamin to ensure you’re getting what you need to seize the day. 
  • Establish a healthy sleep routine: Rest is critical to your physical, mental and emotional wellness. Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, and it’s generally best to stick to a predictable nightly routine — yes, even on the weekends. Consider turning in around the same time each night and setting the same alarm each morning. Ensure your bedroom is cool, dark and quiet, and avoid watching TV, using your phone or consuming caffeine in the hours leading up to sleep.
  • Avoid unhealthy habits: It can be easy to fall into unhealthy patterns, such as drinking too much soda or alcohol, smoking or vaping nicotine or eating a lot of candy. Avoiding these habits, though, can help you live your best life. Balance the occasional indulgence with choices that have significant health benefits.

Remember, your health and wellness routines should be personalized to you. Just because your friend is a pescatarian who works out vigorously every day doesn’t necessarily mean the same regimen is right for you. Create a plan and tweak and adapt it as needed. Consistency is key; small, daily efforts go a long way.

The ECS: A New Respect for the Body’s Innate Wisdom

The ECS is where everything happens when it comes to cannabinoids, so it’s important to understand how it works to make the best cannabis product choices for your goals. 

Whether you’re looking to optimize your health and wellness or just alleviate some soreness, the ECS is where it all starts. If you’re looking for the right cannabis products to support your ECS and help it function at its very best, check out Body and Mind’s menu for a vast selection of the best cannabis products on the market today.

Body and Mind
Body and Mind August 7, 2023

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