The Endocannabinoid System: Meet Our Pioneer of Balance
Everything you learned about cannabis in your school’s D.A.R.E. program, throw it out the window T.O.D.A.Y. Welcome to Part One of your new Cannabis Education Series, where we’re going deep with facts, science—and yes, probably the stars, too—to truly break down and understand the way our bodies work, the way cannabis acts on our bodies, and the way we can use it to bring our bodies back to natural equilibrium.
Let’s Get Physiological: What Is The Endogenous Cannabinoid System?
For more than a century, scientific research surrounding cannabis has been largely suppressed due to the Pure Food and Drug Act. a nasty history of racism, and the infamous “War on Drugs.” However, as legalization spreads throughout the U.S. and the world, we are proving—through research—time and time again that cannabis is not only soothing or healing for many, but it might actually play a key role in regulating our own human biology. Understanding the many ways cannabis acts upon our physicality starts with learning the endogenous cannabinoid system (eCS), the Great Regulator for some of our most critical bodily functions.
The endogenous cannabinoid system (eCS) is our bridge between body and cannabinoid. Well, it’s really more like stars in a constellation, a whole galaxy… or the lymphatic system, if you’re familiar. It takes cannabinoids produced internally by our bodies and externally by plants, and it hand-delivers them to receptors found throughout our body. Memory, immunity, metabolism, the way our cells speak to each other—these are all a ride on the eCS playground.
I like to think of the eCS as the Great Regulator because it helps us maintain homeostasis. In conjunction with our hormonal and nervous systems, the eCS works to stabilize our internal environment, maintaining a state of health and well-being. When something stressful—school, breakups, job losses, the overall state of the world—happens, our body finds ways to offset the negative energy; filling in the gaps. Basically, the endogenous cannabinoid system keeps us in balance (mentally, physically, and spiritually).
This is all to say, physiological equilibrium is important. Arthritis, stroke, obesity, Alzheimer's, and cancers are some of the serious illnesses that can result from long term disturbances in our physical equilibrium. Therefore, your own body’s ability to adjust during times of stress or change is imperative to your state of being.
CB1 and CB2: The Middlemen
CB1 and CB2 are cannabinoid receptors, your typical middlemen. They take sugar and make a cake. When your body experiences a stressor, your eCS releases cannabinoids to these receptors, which turn that signal into a physiological reaction. These are spread throughout our body; we find CB1 in brain and spinal nerve cells, whereas CB2 relates more to the immune system.
CB1 is particularly abundant in the neocortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, and cerebellum. So, it’s ALL UP in our brains. It’s CB1 that translates most THC messaging to the nervous system, including all the heady euphoria. This explains why cannabis has a famous (and sometimes infamous) relationship with memory, sleep, and pain, and why these are the related symptoms most commonly treated by THC or CBD.
CB2 is more commonly found in white blood cells, the spleen, and tonsils. While CB1 is responsible for the fun, flashy, popular effects of cannabinoids (the “feel good” receptor), CB2 does more in the background. CB2 monitors pain and inflammation, undoubtedly important functions for overall and long-term health. CB2 is also more abundant in immune cells, which combined with its effects on inflammation, makes it a promising defense against cancer and especially interesting to researchers.
The presence of cannabinoid receptors meant one important thing to founding scientists in the early 90’s: there must be cannabinoids. At the time, they weren’t sure if our mammalian biology created the cannabinoids to activate receptors, or if the receptors acted from plant-derived or external cannabinoids. Now, we know the answer is both.
Endocannabinoids: The Power Within Us All
Let’s start with the difference between endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids. Phytocannabinoids are produced outside the human body. Typically, they’re found in plants, and they include THC and CBD, among more than 100 other cannabinoids. (We’re going to discuss more about phytocannabinoids in our next segment, so more on that later.) Endocannabinoids, alternatively, are produced inside the human body and include anandamide and other N-acylethanolamines.
Earlier I talked about “filling in the gaps” with the help of our endogenous cannabinoid system. The body does this from birth with endocannabinoids. You can think of these as “natural THC molecules.” Though research is only a few decades old, science has identified two types of endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-arachidonylglycerol (2-AG), and each fatty molecule rules its own domain. Anandamide helps to manage appetite, bolster memory, regulate hormones, and maintain sleep patterns; 2-AG seems to play a larger role in immunity, pain management, and fighting cancer cells. Both are produced naturally, as needed, for the purpose of communicating to a receptor and activating our eCS.
You already know what Anandamide is, you probably just don’t know you know (you know?). When you’re running a marathon, and your body wants to give out, you experience a Runner’s High. This is due to the release of Anandamide. The same pertains to the euphoric feeling you experience when eating spicy food or indulging in dark chocolate. In response to physiological stress, your body releases endocannabinoids, much like endorphins, to balance out the negative and make you feel good.
Like Anandamide, 2-AG aids in immunity and pain response, but as the primary endocannabinoid in mammals, it does a lot more, too. 2-AG seems to have an effect on cancer cell production and apoptosis, helping our bodies to eliminate unhealthy cells. 2-AG acts primarily on CB2 receptors, so I like to think of this pairing as the mechanics to our health. When messages are firing between 2-AG and CB2, our biology functions like a well-oiled machine, setting us on a path to enjoy the euphoric effects of Anandamide on our CB1 receptors.
If this was a perfect world, our endocannabinoids would be enough to regulate our biology until the end of time. But as we all know, the world is full of uncertainty, distractions, deadlines, personalities… and it’s a lot to process. In times of especially high stress or illness, your body’s own endocannabinoids may not be enough to bring your body to equilibrium. In the same way you’d take iron for anemia, melatonin for insomnia, or vitamin C to fend off a cold in the winter, phytocannabinoids can be taken to supplement an overworked eCS. Phytocannabinoids occur naturally in plants (hello, cannabis!) and attach to our CB1 and CB2 receptors just like endocannabinoids.
I’m going to take you deep into the world of phytocannabinoids, their effects, what we know, and how to use them in Part Two of this Cannabis Education Series. For now, if you have any questions, drop us a line! You can also stay tuned for the next part in this series, learn more about the zodiac’s relationship to cannabis, or start a chat with us over on Instagram. Research is still young and growing, so the discussion is always on, and we want to hear what you know as well!