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The Endocannabinoid System: What is it and how does it work?

Our previous blog post merely scratched the surface of CBD basics, and now it’s time to delve into the details. We briefly discussed how phytocannabinoids like CBD and THC work together with our body’s natural systems to elicit a therapeutic response, which brings us to our next topic: the endocannabinoid system. It is suggested that the endocannabinoid system or ECS is considered to be the most important physiological system involved in establishing and maintaining health. But how exactly does the ECS work and what can we learn from this?

How do cannabinoids activate the ECS?

The term “cannabinoid” refers to any chemical substance that joins cannabinoid receptors in the body. Phytocannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) are found in the cannabis sativa plant while endocannabinoids (or endogenous cannabinoids) are naturally-occurring lipid-based molecules produced by the body itself. Both phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids activate the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) by binding to cannabinoid receptors. 

Cannabinoid receptors are believed to be more numerous than any other receptor system in the human body. Cannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body in the brain, organs, connective tissue, glands and immune cells. 

So far, researchers have identified two cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are present in the nervous system, connective tissues, gonads, glands and organs, while CB2 is predominantly found in the immune system and its associated structures. Endocannabinoids are substances our bodies naturally produce to stimulate these naturally-occurring cannabinoid receptors. Although phytocannabinoids are external substances, they also stimulate these cannabinoid receptors and produce a similar response in the body.

While endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids come from different sources, they can work in tandem. Research has shown that small doses of cannabinoids from cannabis can actually prompt the body to make more endocannabinoids and more cannabinoid receptors, which is thought to stimulate the internal healing system.

Actually, the cannabis sativa plant produces cannabinoids to promote its own healing and prevent disease, which may be why it has a similar effect in humans. Cannabinoids feature antioxidant properties that protect the leaves and flowering structures of the cannabis sativa plant from ultraviolet radiation by neutralizing harmful free radicals and thus protecting its cells. In humans, free radicals are known to cause aging, cancer and impaired healing, which is why antioxidants found in cannabis and other plants have been promoted as natural substances to prevent free radical damage. 

How does the ECS work?

At every level of biological life, the endocannabinoid system promotes homeostasis, or maintaining a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment. Because life can only exist under certain ideal conditions, our body’s ability to maintain homeostasis is literally a matter of life and death, and that’s why the ECS is so important to the human body. Actually, all animals — vertebrates and invertebrates — have been found to have an internal ECS system that is essential to regulating homeostasis. 

The endocannabinoid system also plays a crucial role in regulating a broad range of other physiological processes. Research has linked the ECS to appetite and digestion, metabolism, chronic pain, inflammation, mood, learning and memory, motor control, sleep, cardiovascular system function, muscle formation, bone growth, liver function, reproductive system function, stress and nerve function. The fact that the ECS plays a major role in regulating all of these systems illustrates how central the ECS is in allowing our bodies to work properly.

Because endocannabinoids are found at the intersection of the body’s various systems, it allows communication and coordination to occur between different cell types. For example, at the site of an injury, endocannabinoids release chemicals from the injured tissue to stabilize the nerve cell and prevent excess firing, which prompts nearby immune cells to prevent the release of inflammatory chemicals. This way, the ECS prompts different cell types to work together to minimize damage caused by the injury and maintain a stable internal environment. 

It is in this way the ECS links together our body’s immune system, nervous system and all of the body’s organs, and can be thought of as a bridge that links the body and mind. Cannabinoids have been shown to mediate neurogenesis, neural plasticity and learning, so understanding how these different systems interact with one another provides a basis to explain the mechanism by which states of consciousness promote health or disease. 

Because phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD have been shown to stimulate the ECS, cannabinoid-based treatments have become a popular alternative to traditional medicine for a myriad of ailments. But because the cannabis sativa plant produces over 100 different phytocannabinoids — THC and CBD being only two of them — there are endless potential benefits each cannabinoid could trigger within the body that we have yet to discover.

Tapping into how we function at a biological level offers important, life-changing insights. Individuals living in the modern day are often subject to medical treatments and pharmaceutical prescriptions for a myriad of diseases that include harsh side effects, and sometimes, offer little relief. In comparison, CBD and even THC provide an alternative medicine that is more in sync with our natural biological processes.

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