The Human Endocannabinoid System (ECS): A Guide
05.17.22 - 4 min read
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Ever wondered why cannabis has certain effects on the human body? The answer relates to the endocannabinoid system—it’s probably our most significant physiological system for moderating and maintaining human health.
The discovery of the human endocannabinoid system itself might never have happened if people didn’t consume cannabis. Questions about the plant’s impact on people have driven researchers to study cannabis, which has resulted in many unexpected learnings about our own bodies. (Kind of amazing, right?) [Source]
If you want to learn more, keep reading our go-to guide of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). We’ll cover exactly how it was discovered, what it is, what it does, and how cannabis interacts with it.
It all begins with cannabis. Human use of the plant in a variety of applications dates back thousands of years and spans many cultures across the globe. [Source]
However, it wasn’t until 1964 that we took the first steps toward discovering the ECS. That year, in Rehovot, Israel, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science successfully isolated and synthesized the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. Next, they synthesized cannabidiol or CBD found in hemp. [Source]
This cannabinoid research continued in earnest from the 1970s through the 1990s, when Mechoulam isolated the first endogenous cannabinoid. This discovery of endocannabinoids existing in our bodies opened the door to a previously unknown and exciting new physiological system, the endocannabinoid system. [Source]
For launching a cannabis revolution that continues to this day and shows no signs of slowing, Mechoulam has become known as the “Father of Cannabis Research.”
Scientists are currently investigating the vast and very complex cell-signaling endocannabinoid system. There are still many unknowns, but they’ve confirmed the ECS is responsible for moderating and maintaining a proper operating balance or homeostasis within nearly every physiological process employed by our bodies to keep us functioning on a moment-to-moment, 24/7 basis. [Source]
And the ECS is not unique to humans. In fact, all mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles have an ECS for maintaining physiological homeostasis, a term derived from the Greek words for “same” and “steady.” [Source]
Homeostasis is the primary mission of the endocannabinoid system. Some of the many processes maintained by the ECS include appetite, cardiovascular function, energy, pain, reproduction, reward perception, sleep, and stress, as well as responding to endogenous (inside the body) and exogenous (outside the body) environmental conditions. [Source]
The ECS contains three key components: endocannabinoid molecules that send signals, cannabinoid receptors found on the surface of cells that receive those signals, and metabolic enzymes that destroy the endocannabinoids after their signals have been received by the endocannabinoid receptors. These three components are present throughout our bodies, including our nervous systems, virtually every brain cell, the immune cells in our blood, across the full axis of the spinal cord, and even on our skin cells. [Source]
Make sense so far? Great! Now, let’s look at the key components of the ECS in greater detail.
Endocannabinoids are small fatty acid neurotransmitter molecules produced within the membranes of our cells. The ECS creates them on-demand, meaning they are produced precisely where and only when they are needed. As soon as they are created, endocannabinoids seek out cannabinoid receptors and bind to them.
There are two key endocannabinoids found in the ECS:
Cannabinoid (CB) receptors are G proteins residing on cell surfaces, continuously monitoring external conditions. When an Anandamide or 2-AG endocannabinoid binds with a CB receptor, signals are transmitted into the cell on which the cannabinoid receptor resides. This initiates an appropriate response, determined by the location and type of CB receptor, as well as the type of endocannabinoid that binds with it. Endocannabinoids may also bind to TRPV proteins that function similarly to cannabinoid receptors in the ECS. [Source]
Here’s what we know about CB1, CB2, and TRPV receptors in the ECS:
The third key component of the ECS is metabolic enzymes responsible for destroying endocannabinoids when they are no longer needed by the ECS. There are two primary ECS enzymes:
Driven by the overarching mission of homeostasis, the endocannabinoid system has evolved incredibly dynamic and complex mechanisms for achieving and maintaining optimum physiological performance. Scientists around the world are beginning to rigorously investigate the many functions of the mysterious ECS.
Less than 30 years have passed since the discovery of the ECS, but researchers have already achieved remarkable success identifying many key roles and functions. Certainly, there are more great discoveries still waiting in the wings, but the list of scientifically identified physiological functions moderated by the ECS on a 24/7 basis is impressive, to say the least.
Bodily functions under ECS control via activation of CB1 receptors:
Bodily functions under ECS control via interaction with CB2 receptors:
Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced naturally in cannabis plants. As it turns out, our ECS interacts with the phytocannabinoids in cannabis almost identically as with our own endocannabinoids.
Researching the psychoactive effects of phytocannabinoids led us to the ECS, which in turn led us to endocannabinoids. Now we are returning to the source, researching how phytocannabinoids might interact with the ECS to potentially benefit human health.
Astoundingly, our need to know why marijuana has such interesting effects on us has produced a wealth of compelling research and inspired an entirely new market sector for cannabis pharmaceuticals and pharmacotherapeutics. A May 2020 market analysis report predicts the global cannabis pharmaceuticals market will grow at a compound annual rate of 76.8% from 2020 through 2027.
Over 400 chemical compounds produced in cannabis have been identified to date. At least 104 of these compounds are phytocannabinoids unique to cannabis. Scientists have identified potentially promising improvements in healthcare with synthesized cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals. [Source]
“We are truly at the dawn of an age of discovery,” writes Dr. Peter Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School, referring to the development of new medicines targeting the ECS to “help alleviate some of the cruelest diseases that people (and animals) suffer from.” [Source]
Echoing the sentiments of so many in the science and medical communities, Dr. Grinspoon adds, “I am incredibly excited to see what discoveries await us as we continue to untangle the mysteries of the ECS.”
Do you have questions about specific cannabinoids, or cannabis in general? Would you like a consultation? Visit your local RISE Dispensary—our friendly, knowledgeable staff is here happy to help!
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