An introduction to the Endocannabinoid System

Cannabis is known today for its psychoactive properties, however it has been used by mankind for centuries. The earliest known cultivation dates as far back as 12,000 years ago, initially cultivated for fibre due to its speed of growth and resilience to a variety of environmental conditions. The first recreational use was recorded c.400BC by Ancient Greeks and gained popularity in the Middle East and South East Asia in c.800AD before gradually globailising over the following 1,000 years. 

Despite its extensive and long dated use, its medical understanding has only been the focus of researchers since the mid/late 1980s and only in early 1990s was the Endocannabinoid System ('ECS') discovered. This subsequently lead to the formation of its name: ‘endo’ (short for endogenous) meaning that it is naturally produced within the body, and ‘cannabinoid’ referring to the cannabis-like substances that our bodies naturally produce.  

What is the ECS?

The ECS is a biological system that plays an important role in our body’s ability to maintain balance and homeostasis in response to changes in the environment.

Homeostasis is the concept that most biological systems (such as the ECS) are trying to maintain conditions within an optimal range (e.g. when we are too hot, we sweat to cool our bodies down).

ECS is a naturally occurring process and it is understood to help regulate a variety of functions to reach homeostasis, including affecting sleep, mood, memory, reproduction, pain sensation and appetite, to name a few.

systems of the body

The ECS is made up of three parts that offer insight into the various functions it helps to regulate:  

1. Endocannabinoids 

Endocannabinoids, cannabinoids naturally produced by the body as and when the body needs it. Whilst the body naturally produces endocannabinoids, there are potential deficiencies due to genetics, disease or injury. Healthy lifestyle choices also have been shown to positively impact their formation. 

Other forms of cannabinoids exist but are not produced naturally by the body, namely:

Phytocannabinoids on the other hand, are cannabinoids received from plant-based sources, such as CBD, and are similar to endocannabinoids as they interact (either directly or indirectly) with receptors in the ECS system; and

Synthetic cannabinoids that are manmade, i.e. produced in a laboratory to form a similar molecule to that of phytocannabinoids. Whilst there are claims that it is as effective as phytocannabinoids, we at BeOlea remain advocates of the natural produce. 

endocannabinoids vs phytocannabinoids

2. Receptors CB1 & CB2

Neurons (or nerve cells) are specialised cells in our nervous system (Central Nervous System, CNS, and Perhipheral Nervous System, PNS) that transmit and receive electrical signals in the body to integrate and communicate with other cells (neurons, muscles or glands). They are the 'wonder cells' that allow us to see, hear, smell, to understand our surroundings and act on such sensory information. It also triggers involuntary responses, like an increase in heart rate and blood flow to your muscles, intended to help you cope with danger. 

There are various types of neurons in the body, but most communication is made with chemical molecules such as neurotransmitters.  A neuron sending information (presynaptic cell) will release neurotransmitters to a receiving postsynaptic cell, that may or may not send the information onwards or generate an action. 

Why is this important?  

Neurons' synapses produce endocannabinoids and have cannabinoid receptors. This is the case for neurons in both in the CNS and the PNS.  Endocannabinoids have been identified as key modulators of this communication mechanism. By activating cannabinoid receptors in presynaptic cells, they can regulate neural functions and behaviors and affect their issued action responses. They allow for the neurons to communicate with each other and regulate their responses and flow of communication.  

cannabinoid receptors and neuron

Receptors (most known are CB1 and CB2) are located throughout CNS and PNS. They transmit information inside the cell, and help kick-start the appropriate cellular response. 

CB1 and CB2 together cover a wide range of locations and functions in the body, including the brain, lungs, muscles, skin, bones, gastrointestinal tract, reproductive organs, nerves of the spinal cord (that carry motor, sensory and autonomic signals between spinal cord and the body), the immune system and the pituitary gland (that plays a central role in producing female reproductive hormones), to name a few.

bb1 receptors and cb2 receptors

3. Enzymes 

Enzymes that help break down cannabinoids after their use, i.e. cannabinoids are not stored in the body for later use. They are produced by the body as and when needed and enzymes help to break down and dispose of used cannabinoids. 

An example
ECS and the immune system

Let’s take an example of how the ECS works in relation to inflammation.  Simply put, inflammation is a natural reaction of the immune system in response to infection or physical damage and its’ purpose is to remove bacteria (pathogens) and to restore damaged tissue.  When the immune system works optimally, it is limited to the location for the right amount of time required to ‘fix the problem’.  Chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system has been activated improperly (lasting too long or targeting healthy cells). 

Endocannabinoids have been shown to regulate immune responses and bring such inflammatory diseases under control.  For example, when immune cells detect the presence of bacteria, they release endocannabinoids and other pro-inflammatory molecules to summon other immune cells to fight the bacteria and to manage the inflammatory responses, keeping it from becoming excessive. 

Conclusion

Endocannabinoids have been reported to positively affect systems such as memory, appetite, digestion, energy balance, metabolism, stress, pain, inflammation, mood and sleep, to name a few. Substantial research still needs to be made to fully understand the ECS, however what we know today is that it is one of the most important biological signaling systems that help the body stay balanced and healthy.  

So, let’s start supporting the ECS system to do what it does best!

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