The Endocannabinoid System Part 1: Endocanna-what?

Have you ever wondered how or why cannabis influences us? It all has to do with our endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The endocannabinoid system was discovered in 1988 by a team of researchers, lead by Allyn Howlett, at the St. Louis University Medical School. While researching how phytocannabinoids, cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant, interacted with the brain, Howlett and her team found that THC (one of the most abundant compounds in cannabis) binds to receptors (cells that send stimuli to the brain) located throughout the entire human body.

Considered to be the largest receptor system, the ECS is responsible for maintaining balance within the body, or homeostasis, despite changes in the external environment. The ECS is essential to our health and well-being.

The endocannabinoid system is complex. However, when we break it down into three major components, it is easier to understand how it works:

  • Cannabinoid Receptors
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Metabolic Enzymes

Cannabinoid receptors are found on the surface of cells and are electrically driven. These receptors act like antennas receiving a signal and transfer the information to the brain to give us a feeling. There are only two identified types of cannabinoid receptors in our bodies called CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptors are mostly concentrated in the central nervous system and the intoxicating effect often affiliated with cannabis can be attributed to this receptor. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are mostly concentrated in the immune system, which helps regulate inflammation and immune function.

Cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2

Endocannabinoids are unique molecules made by the body to activate cannabinoid receptors. These molecules get made on demand when needed. The two most common endocannabinoids are Anandamide (AEA) and 2-Arachidonylglycerol (2-AG). The AEA and 2-AG endocannabinoids activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors to tell your body to feel a certain way or do certain things.

Endocannabinoids AEA and 2-AG activating the cannabinoid receptors

Metabolic enzymes come into play by breaking down endocannabinoids after they are used. These enzymes are responsible for maintaining cells to ensure they stay healthy and function properly. They are also the reason why endocannabinoids don’t give us the same intoxicating effects, like their plant-derived counterparts. Endocannabinoids are used and recycled before we can even feel an effect.

Endocannabinoids getting broken down by metabolic enzymes after being used

Our endocannabinoid system influences why we feel effects after consuming cannabis. The phytocannabinoids, like CBD and THC, mimic the actions of our body’s endocannabinoids. However, phytocannabinoids do not get broken down by the same enzymes that endocannabinoids do, resulting in a longer lasting effect. In Part 2 of our endocannabinoid system blog series, we will further discuss how the ECS functions in the body and manages memory, pain, and emotion.


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