Hemp and its active compounds (which are called cannabinoids, or more specifically, phytocannabinoids) impact the body and mind in various ways. But what allows them to have this impact, and how does it all work?
In a nutshell, it all comes down to the ECS. In this article, we look at the endocannabinoid system and all it can do. First, though, it’s important to understand the concept of homeostasis.
What is homeostasis?
Homeostasis refers to the maintenance and regulation of various conditions within the body. This can include things like body temperature, blood sugar level, immune response, and more.
In order for the body to function properly, it needs to remain within a certain set of physiological and biochemical parameters. Think of it like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: everything in the body needs to be not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Homeostasis is largely maintained through the use of negative feedback mechanisms. These mechanisms allow everything in the body to be monitored carefully so that, when something changes, it can be corrected. This is where the endocannabinoid system comes in.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is thought to exist in virtually every living animal on earth. It comprises a massive network of endocannabinoids (neurotransmitters) and their respective receptors, and is crucial to survival.
Endocannabinoid receptors exist on the surface of cells, and “listen” to what’s going on in the body. They communicate information about various internal processes that are taking place, and allow adjustments to be made in order for the body to maintain the all-important state of homeostasis.
Scientists have identified two primary endocannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2 receptors. Although both types of receptors can be found throughout the body, CB1 receptors are more highly concentrated in the brain and central nervous system. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, appear to be more abundant in peripheral systems.
Endocannabinoids vs. phytocannabinoids
Cannabinoids that are found in plants (i.e. hemp) are called phytocannabinoids. Structurally, these are very similar to the endocannabinoids that the body produces naturally.
Typically, endocannabinoids are produced in response to some change that’s needed in the body. They can either bind directly to endocannabinoid receptors in a lock-and-key mechanism (most common with CB1 receptors), or, in the case of CB2 receptors, they can function via receptor-independent pathways and influence cellular processes in a more indirect manner.
To date, scientists have identified two major endocannabinoids in humans: anandamide and 2-AG. These molecules are synthesized from fatty acids within cell membranes.
Once endocannabinoids have served their specific momentary purpose, they are broken down by metabolic enzymes. It appears that the enzyme FAAH breaks down anandamide, while MAGL breaks down 2-AG.
Metabolic breakdown ensures that endocannabinoids do not build up to abnormal levels inside the body. In fact, this breakdown process is what separates endocannabinoids from other signaling molecular (like hormones), which can be stored in the body if needed.
How was the endocannabinoid system discovered?
Everyone has heard of the respiratory system and the cardiovascular system, but few know anything about the endocannabinoid system. One of the reasons for this is that it was not discovered until fairly recently. And of course, even with today’s increasing acceptance of hemp as a therapeutic plant, the ECS remains hugely understudied.
In 1964, Israeli cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam first isolated and identified the chemical structure of cannabinoids. His discovery almost single-handedly paved the way for current research on how the active compounds in hemp impact physiological systems in humans.
Later, in 1988, Drs. Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered the first cannabinoid receptor in the brain of a rat. They began to map CB receptors in the central nervous system (CNS), and found something quite astonishing: there appeared to be more of these receptors than any other type of neurotransmitter in the CNS.
Today, while ECS-based research is still largely lacking, doctors and scientists have made massive advancements in terms of understanding the impact of endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids on various physiological systems. In the years to come, research will hopefully advance to the point that we are able to establish a complete understanding of hemp‘s phytocannabinoids, and how each one interacts with internal physiologic pathways related to homeostasis.
What is the ECS’ role in the body?
As we have talked about, the ECS plays a vital role in maintaining homeostasis, or whole-body balance. This can of course encompass a massive range of internal processes.
In fact, the ECS appears to have an influence on nearly every internal bodily system. ECS receptors have been found in almost every single cell and tissue type, implying the potential for phytocannabinoids – like CBD – to possess nearly endless potential in terms of regulating processes relating to mind and body balance.
This also helps to explain how people can use hemp-based extracts (like CBD oil) to achieve such a wide range of therapeutic benefits, including benefits relating to stress, anxiety, sleep, and pain relief (just to name a few).
How do cannabinoids interact with the ECS?
With all this information on the endocannabinoid system, it’s logical to jump straight to wondering how plant cannabinoids interact with our ECS. Of course, with over 100 cannabinoids naturally occurring in the cannabis plant, each one can interact with our ECS in different ways. THC and CBD are the most well-known and most well-studied, though, having garnered the most public interest.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the most infamous active compound in cannabis, and it has the ability to interact directly with our endocannabinoid system. When marijuana is consumed, the THC can bind directly with our cannabinoid receptors, in the same way as our endocannabinoids do. THC seems to have a preference for our CB1 receptors, found in the brain, which is why THC can cause psychoactive, intoxicating effects and produce the famous ‘high’.
But what about CBD? Cannabidiol is slightly different; instead of binding directly with our cannabinoid receptors, it has an indirect influence on the ECS. It can help us to produce more endocannabinoids naturally, which in turn leads to a better functioning of the ECS and a healthier body. This is why CBD is being investigated for its potential.
Basically, when you take CBD oil or another CBD product, you are absorbing CBD into your bloodstream and allowing it to interact with the ECS. If your endocannabinoid system is struggling to keep up with homeostasis, CBD can maybe give it that much-needed boost.
Final thoughts on the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is a very important system in the human body. It is not only crucial to our survival, but it is also fundamental in understanding what impact taking CBD could have on our bodies.
If you have ever heard of the endocannabinoid system and felt a little lost, we hope that this article has served to explain everything you need to know about the ECS and its functions.