The Endocannabinoid System – A Beginner's Guide

8 minute read

The Endocannabinoid System – A Beginner's Guide

We don’t want to be presumptuous here, but we reckon that there’s a fair few of you who have little knowledge about the endocannabinoid system that exists in the human body.

After all, even seasoned scientists are continuing to learn as they research this complex subject, with a recent development suggesting that natural compounds like CBD can play a significant role in stimulating and manipulating the endocannabinoid system.

While this system serves the basic purpose of responding to endogenous cannabinoids that are produced naturally within the human form, the National Institutes of Health have revealed that the introduction of external cannabinoids could also prove to be extremely beneficial in a number of ways.

We’ve prepared a beginner's guide to the endocannabinoid system, while exploring how this interacts with organic but external cannabinoids like CBD.

What is the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

As we’ve already touched upon briefly, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a relatively new discovery in the world of physiology. In fact, despite being an integral part of our functionality as humans, the system was not discovered until the mid-1990s by the Israeli researcher Dr. Ralph Mechoulam.

In classical terms, the ECS is a biological and physiological system that is partially composed of endocannabinoids, which are themselves endogenous, lipid-based neurotransmitters.

These transmitters are known to bind to cannabinoid receptors and receptor proteins, that are then expressed through the central nervous system and the human brain in a number of alternative ways.

The third crucial element of the ECS is metabolic enzymes, which work to quickly destroy endocannabinoids once they’ve been used. The two major enzymes are FAAH, which breaks down anandamide, and MAGL, which destroys that naturally occuring endocannabinoid 2-AG.

These enzymes ensure that endocannabinoids are used for the precise amount of time required, which in turn distinguishes them from a number of alternative molecular signals in the human body.

The research conducted by Dr. Mechoulam was truly groundbreaking, as it initially identified the two main receptors that are in-tune with naturally occurring endocannabinoids.

Of course, more recent studies have highlighted that these receptors are also configured to respond to cannabinoids from external cannabinoids, including the psychoactive agent THC and the non-psychoactive compound CBD.

At the time, these findings barely raised an eyebrow in the field of physiology, but given the rise of CBD supplements and similar products there’s a growing interest in respect of how the ECS works and the impact that it has on the human body.

What are cannabinoid receptors?

During Dr. Mechoulam’s study, he determined that there were two main receptors in the ECS, referred to simply as Cannabinoid 1 (CB1) and Cannabinoid 2 (CB2). These not only responded to the numerous endocannabinoids produced naturally in the human body, but also phytocannabinoids such as the aforementioned THC and CBD.

Of course, there are numerous other cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body, each of which play a part within the complex ECS system. It is these two receptors that play the most pivotal and influential roles within the system, while it’s interesting to note that CB1 and CB2 are keyed to alternative cannabinoids and therefore serve entirely different functions.

In the case of CB1 receptors, these are primarily located in the brain (although they may also be present in both male and female reproductive organs). This particular receptor is bound to the psychoactive agent THC, which is the key compound found in cannabis and specific parts of the hemp plant.

As you would expect, this receptor is responsible for the feeling of intoxication that ensues when taking cannabis, while in more general terms it has mind-altering properties that can impact on perception while moderating our reaction to pain.

Conversely, CB2 receptors are found primarily in the immune system, with the highest concentration situated in the spleen. These receptors are bound to the organic and non-psychoactive agent CBD, which is also extracted from hemp plants but far-removed from the properties of THC and similar compounds.

The location of this site hints that CB2 may have immune-boosting qualities, but scientific research into these has only recently begun in earnest. What we do know, however, is that CB2 receptors can work with CBD supplements to help control or regulate appetite, which is of particular benefit for athletes who are in the middle of a strict dietary and training program.

Just in case you were wondering, it’s also been proven that the consumption of CBD can counteract the impact of THC through interaction with the CB1 receptor.

This offers some insight into the potential of CB1 and CB2 receptors, but once again further research is required if we’re to realise the full potential of the compound in the human body.

What does the ECS do?

We spoke earlier about the three key components of the ECS, and these can be found within almost every major system or reaction within the human form.

In this respect, the ECS plays a truly pivotal role in maintaining homeostasis. This refers to the concept that most biological and physiological systems are naturally regulated to create conditions that exist within a narrow range, so that the human body can perform to its optimal level.

Thanks to homeostasis, for example, our body temperature does not become too hot or too cold, while this process also helps to regulate blood-sugar levels and similar balances.

Given this, and with a diversity of major and minor receptors located throughout the body, the ECS delivers a variety of functions and ensures that a requisite balance is maintained at all times.

The ECS connects several fundamental aspects of your brain, while coordinating messages between these factions and the corresponding parts of the body.

This subsequently controls a range of functions, including basic examples such as motion and mood to more complex alternatives like hormone production and the management of pleasure centres.

Earlier in this post, we also mentioned that the ECS can have a significant impact on our appetite and metabolism.

Analysing this process in detail can help us to understand the precise way in which the ECS operates, particularly in terms of how it regulates our impulses and how external cannabinoids can help to manipulate your body’s response in a beneficial manner.

When we feel hungry, for example, the body releases a natural endocannabinoid known as ‘anandamide’ into our systems, and this compound specifically activates the CB1 receptor.

Although this is a natural process, it can be problematic for athletes, who may be compelled to consume more calories than their training regime allows.

By consuming CBD, however, you can deactivate the CB1 cell receptors that have been stimulated by anandamide (or in some instances, THC) and immediately decrease your appetite.

So, while the ECS is responsible for the transmittance of chemical messengers that tell your body to start and subsequently stop a number of processes, the consumption of external cannabinoids and compounds such as CBD can subtly manipulate functionality to achieve a desired end result.

Where do Endocannabinoids Come from?

Clearly, endocannabinoids occur naturally in the human body, while organically sourced and beneficial cannabinoids may also be derived from hemp.

Of course, laboratories can also produce completely synthesised cannabinoids, but these are largely illegal and do not work as efficiently as those derived from organic sources.

Naturally occuring endocannabinoids are synthesised on demand by the human body, with this process replicating the way in which endorphins are formulated and released.

The science behind this suggests that an activated postsynaptic neuron stimulates the release of endocannabinoids, which then travel across a synapse and bind themselves to an appropriate cannabinoid receptor.

The two main examples of naturally occuring endocannabinoids are the aforementioned anandamide and 2-AG, with the former binding directly to the CB1 receptor.

Conversely, the latter is an antagonist to both the CB1 and the CB2 receptors, meaning that it has a far greater and diverse impact on the function of the human body.

CBD and THC are the two primary cannabinoids, both of which are organic compounds derived from hemp.

The former represents the most fascinating of these, as it remains a entirely legal and non-psychoactive compound that offers a number of benefits in terms of diet and the regulation of sleep cycles.

CBD can also be consumed in a number of alternative forms, with associated food supplements becoming increasingly popular in the current market.

As you may imagine, both CBD and THC are extracted from alternative parts of the hemp plant. More specifically, the former is derived almost exclusively from the stalks and the stems of the plant, as this minimises exposure to the psychoactive agent THC.

CBD can also only be derived from industrial hemp plants, which are categorised by having 0.3% THC or less as part of their make-up.

Endocannabinoid Regulation of Inflammation

When appraising the ECS system (and especially the CB2 receptor), it’s also interesting to note the role that it plays regulating inflammation.

Inflammation is essentially a natural protective reaction that exists within the immune system, and one that typically occurs following an infection or instances where physical damage has been inflicted on the body.

The purpose of this is to remove pathogens and damaged tissues, before fluid and immune cells move in to restore balance to the body.

One of the issues here is that inflammation must be limited to the location of the damage or initial injury, while it should not persist for longer than necessary.

Make no mistake; chronic or sustained inflammation can cause significant harm, while also triggering a number of potential ailments or conditions.

Fortunately, endocannabinoids have been proven to limit the immune systems inflammatory signals, regulating the body’s response to injury and optimising recovery in the process.

This process even applies to subtle damage or wear and tear that may occur after high intensity workouts, and in this respect the ECS may also aid the recovery of athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

This discovery has also led to sustained research into the role that organic cannabinoids like CBD can potentially play in regulating inflammation.

Although there’s little doubt that the successful manipulation of the ECS can help to manage inflammation and potentially treat inflammatory diseases.

The Last Word

The ECS is undoubtedly a complex and intriguing system, and one that remains the subject of significant research.

Of particular interest is the way in which organic cannabinoids and compounds like CBD can be leveraged to manipulate the function of the ECS to trigger specific and positive responses.

This remains the primary focus of ongoing research at present, especially in terms of the impact that CBD may have on the immune system and inflammation in the human body.

Regardless, what is clear is that the ECS continues to play an extremely influential role in the functionality of the human body.

It certainly helps to maintain homoeostasis, ensuring that the bodies core biological systems are regulated naturally and maintained in a way that creates optimal conditions in any given scenario.

The importance of this cannot be ignored, particularly when you consider the damage that a high body temperature or inflated blood-sugar level can cause. In this respect, we’re fortunate that so much research has been conducted into this topic and that we have the knowledge base that we do today.

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