The Endocannabinoid System: Our Internal Cannabis System

Posted by Aleshia Johnson on


Did you know that humans naturally make cannabinoid molecules within our own bodies? 

These molecules, which are called endocannabinoids are part of our endocannabinoid system, which assists us in regulating and balancing important physiological functions. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) simply refers to our endogenous (made within our body) cannabinoid system and has been named after the plant species that led to its discovery. 

Cannabinoid compounds that are found in the cannabis plant, such as CBD and THC, can interact with our internal cannabinoid system. Exploring this interaction of human and plant biology was what led to the discovery of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain and the ECS in the human body. The effect that plant cannabinoids can have on our ECS and health holds huge therapeutic potential and can provide a solution or alternative option for management of pain, inflammation, skin conditions, mood or sleep disorders, parkinson, epilepsy and more.

The discovery of the ECS came in the early 90’s, almost 30 years after the isolation of the active component of cannabis D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

Despite this breakthrough in discovering  a whole new system that involves vast areas of our body and brain, research in this area was tightly restricted and education on the ECS was left out of medical literature for many years. Perhaps we can attribute this to the imposing laws, regulations and propaganda that has surrounded the cannabis plant. 

Sometimes described as the master system, the ECS helps to regulate all other systems in our body. Our bodies have many systems which act to keep us in balance, despite changes or threats from our external and/or internal environment. This self regulating process of keeping us in balance is called homeostasis. A few well known and highly studied body systems include the circulatory system, nervous system and musculoskeletal system to name a few. 

We still have a lot to learn about the ECS, what we do know is that the ECS has a complex role in maintaining homeostasis and regulating a number of important physiological functions:

  • Appetite and digestion
  • Metabolism
  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Pain regulation
  • Memory, learning and cognitive function
  • Motor control
  • Immune function
  • Reproduction and fertility  

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

The ECS involves three core components:

  • endogenous cannabinoids (or endocannabinoids)
  • cannabinoid receptors  
  • enzymes of the ECS 

Endogenous cannabinoids 

There are two key molecules (among others) made within our bodies which act on our cannabinoid receptors. Our bodies produce these molecules in fluctuating levels as required to maintain balance or homeostasis. 

  • 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglycerol)
  • Anandamide (arachidonoylethanolamide)

The name anandamide is derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “bliss” or “delight.” Sometimes referred to as the bliss molecule due to the role it plays in happiness and mental wellness. Anandamide is responsible for causing what's known as a runner's high.

Cannabinoid receptors

These receptors are found all throughout the body: in the brain, nervous system, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. Cannabinoids (both plant made and endogenous) bind to cannabinoid receptors and cause an effect based on where the receptor is located and which type of cannabinoid is binding to it. 

There are two main cannabinoid receptors:

  • CB1 receptors: mostly in the central nervous System (CNS): memory, mood, executive function, cognition, analgesia, movement. In the gastrointestinal system: appetite, lipolysis. And the respiratory system.

  • CB2 receptors: mostly found in the peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells: reduces inflammation and neuropathic pain. 

Enzymes of the ECS

Enzymes are responsible for the synthesis (production) and breakdown of our endogenous cannabinoids. Enzymes FAAH and MAGL are involved in the degradation pathway of endogenous cannabinoids and have generated a lot of interest for pharmaceutical development. Many studies have investigated the potential of developing medications that inhibit these enzymes to prevent the breakdown and raise levels of our endogenous cannabinoids. 

How does the cannabis plant affect our ECS?

There are around 113 different plant cannabinoids discovered to date. These are typically concentrated in the flowers (buds) and leaves of the cannabis plant. 

Much like our endogenous cannabinoids, these plant cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) are able to bind and cause an effect on the cannabinoid receptors that are found all throughout the human body. Due to the large variety of plant cannabinoids and wide distribution of ECS receptors in the brain and body, cannabis can affect us in ways that are sometimes hard to define.

Two of the most well known and well researched cannabinoids include THC (D9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol):

  • THC is the cannabinoid responsible for causing the psychoactive effects such as a ‘high’ or euphoric feeling. THC is able to stimulate appetite and is also great for relieving pain, nausea, seizures, and anxiety.

  • CBD has gained a lot of interest in recent years. Now approved as a health supplement in many countries around the world, CBD does not cause any psychoactive effects or ‘highs’ that are typically associated with the cannabis plant. CBD has been demonstrated to be useful for a range of health benefits; from mood, sleep and anxiety to pain, inflammation and certain epileptic conditions. 

Hemp naturally contains less than 0.3% THC and is naturally higher in CBD than the marijuana variety of cannabis. With huge health and therapeutic potential for CBD we certainly want to be able to harvest and extract the oil from the flowers and leaves of our hemp crops. It seems absurd that with all the knowledge we have about the potential of CBD and other cannabinoids for human health, that it is still illegal for us, in New Zealand, to have full access and benefits that hemp can provide.

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