The Complex Mechanisms of the Endocannabinoid System Explained
People consume cannabis for many different reasons, in many different settings, doing very different things, even experiencing very different effects, but one thing remains largely universal among cannabis lovers – they talk about how the herb just magically makes everything better, because it makes them feel better, feel just right. Some even go as far as to describe this altered state of mind as the real one, with everything else being a deviation.
And even though “just right” as an account is quite broad and intangible, abstract even, it’s generally rooted in the same idea – the state of balance and harmony. “The cocktail is just right, meaning the balance between the ingredients is just right.” This couldn’t be any truer when it comes to cannabis, and how we react to it. Behind this feeling of “just right,” there’s actually a very concrete scientific mechanism, and it’s called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), without which we’d be color blind to cannabis’s rich palette of effects.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
We’ve all seen those images of the brain that resemble an electrified web of neurons and pathways, encompassing pretty much our entire head. Well, that’s actually a good depiction of the ECS, but the difference is it actually encompasses our entire bodies.
The ECS is our bodies’ regulatory body, the control system that coordinates some of the most defining and intricately intertwined processes and states in our organisms and makes sure they run smoothly, from the more primal ones like appetite and pain-sensation, to the more wondrous ones like mood, memory, sleep, and mental well-being.
In short, the ECS is responsible for maintaining our inner environment harmonious and stable, balanced, (“just right,” but minus the high) even when conditions outside of it are anything but. The scientific term for this state of inner balance, or rather our bodies’ innate strive toward this state, is homeostasis.
The ECS operates with two key engines to help our body maintain homeostasis: endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors.
Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that the ECS uses like messengers via which it sends signals and orders, meant to restore the disrupted balance. Anandamide and 2-AG are the two most important endocannabinoids, and they are very similar in nature to the phytocannabinoids, found in cannabis.
Anandamide, coming from “ananda,” which is Sanskrit means joy and bliss, which is why anandamide also goes by “the bliss molecule” and is generally regarded as our body’s naturally produced, or endogenous, analogue of the exogenous THC, whereas 2-AG corresponds to CBD in that same vein.
A perfectly natural reaction to this information would be, “If our body produces its own THC and CBD, why do we need to obtain it from external sources, and why don’t we feel their effects all the time?”
Well, because there’s a third element of the wondrous equation that is ECS’s operating mechanism, be it a little overlooked, and that’s the metabolic enzymes that break down endocannabinoids once they’ve done their job. In other words, our body produces endocannabinoids on demand.
On the receiving end of endocannabinoids’ messages are the cannabinoid receptors, spread throughout our bodies like telephone poles.
There are two types of cannabinoid receptors – CB1 and CB2. While both are generally spread throughout our entire bodies, CB1 are concentrated in the central nervous system and the brain in particular, whereas CB2 are predominantly found in our immune system. THC has higher affinity for CB1, while CBD bonds better with CB2.
How it Works
So, when something happens that disrupts our inner balance, the ECS acts to restore it by sending endocannabinoids to the cannabinoid receptors, located in the area of the “breach,” the disruption. The endocannabinoids activate the cannabinoid receptors, and respectively the action that is needed to restore the balance.
Take inflammation control, one of the signature benefits of cannabis, and CBD in particular. Inflammation in itself is a typical example of a bodily reaction that is actually designed to protect us and bring us back to homeostasis, but one that has gotten a bad rap because it tends to be unruly, like a friendly dog that means well but can wreak havoc if not kept in check.
Inflammation’s function is to remove the damaged tissue with the help of immune cells. However, our body often gets carried away with it, activating more immune cells then needed, for longer than they are needed, resulting in pain. Even worse, some people’s immune systems have inherent flaws, activating needless inflammatory reactions, resulting in chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
Endocannabinoids have been found to balance out our immune cells’ inflammatory responses, regulating inflammation and harnessing its healing potential while negating the destructive one. This is why exogenous cannabinoids like CBD have proven so effective in alleviating inflammation, whether it’s a superficial type of inflammation, caused by a wound, or something much deeper and more innate, like inflammation in the brain that is linked to Alzheirmer’s.
Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD)
Some people’s ECS is unable to keep up with the demand for endocannabinoids, which is a medical condition, known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). That means the body’s distress calls are left unanswered, as the ECS doesn’t have enough endocannabinoids to send to the cannabinoid receptors in the affected areas.
This is where cannabis and CBD in particular come to the rescue, serving as universal, exogenous donors, supplying the body with the endocannabinoids it is missing.
To sum things up, the ECS is omnipresent in our bodies, regulating so many of the seemingly magical processes that constantly take place within us to keep us alive. Its omnipresence is the very reason why cannabis and CBD have such a sweeping array of effects on us – anywhere the ECS reaches, cannabinoids can reach.