The Endocannabinoid System
The Average Person’s Guide to the Endocannabinoid System
If you’ve done any reading about cannabis, you may have come across the concept of the endocannabinoid system. While it sounds like a complex scientific term, the endocannabinoid system is really not that different from our respiratory or cardiovascular system; it helps our body perform specific jobs.
What is the endocannabinoid system, and how does it explain the myriad effects of cannabis? Read on to learn all about the endocannabinoid system and how it affects your body, whether or not you use cannabis.
What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system is a biological system found in all vertebrates (i.e. animals with a backbone or spinal column). It is comprised of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors. Endocannabinoids are a class of neurotransmitter with similar structures to the cannabinoids found in the cannabis. Cannabinoid receptors in your body are designed to interact with cannabinoids.
Cannabinoids are chemicals found in the highest concentration in cannabis, but also other plants like black pepper and echinacea. Naturally occurring cannabinoids in our bodies are called endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids, whereas those found in cannabis and other plants are known as exogenous cannabinoids.
The similarity between cannabinoids from cannabis and endocannabinoids in our bodies allows cannabis to interact with our endocannabinoid system.
Neurotransmitters are a type of chemical messenger which facilitate the transmission of signals in our nervous system, including our brain. At this very moment, billions of neurotransmitters are working in harmony to keep your body functioning normally. They help to control a wide range of functions in our bodies and, without them, we couldn’t survive.
You might have heard of some other neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Each of these neurotransmitters has its own corresponding system of receptors, and each plays a complex role in our nervous system.
Much like the endocannabinoid system, these other neurotransmitters can react with various drugs, both medicinal and recreational. For example, SSRI antidepressants and MDMA work primarily by interacting with serotonin receptors. Similarly, benzodiazepines like Xanax work by interacting with GABA receptors.
In a similar way, the endocannabinoid system plays a role in a host of biological processes in our bodies, including mood, memory, pain, appetite, the immune response, and fertility. The complexity of the endocannabinoid system accounts for the wide range of medicinal and recreational effects which we experience when we consume cannabis.
How Does the Endocannabinoid System Work?
Neurons of all types end with a synapse - a microscopic gap between cells. Synapses contain tiny sacs, known as vesicles, where neurotransmitters are stored. Electrical signals, called action potentials, trigger the release of neurotransmitters into the space between cells. Released neurotransmitters move across the gap between cells - known as the synaptic cleft - until they reach receptor sites situated on the adjacent cell.
Along with other neurotransmitter systems, the endocannabinoid system works by passing signals between different neurons and other cells.
Neurotransmitters are often compared to locks and keys. A receptor is only activated when it binds with the neurotransmitter “key” which fits with its “lock.” When neurotransmitters attach to their corresponding receptor site, the adjacent cell is alerted to perform some action.
For example, excitatory neurotransmitters can cause adjacent neurons to pass along an electrical signal, known as firing, while inhibitory neurotransmitters can discourage the same action.
To date, scientists have identified two types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. These correspond to two main endocannabinoids found in our bodies, namely anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG).
In broad terms, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from cannabis mimics the effect of anandamide, while cannabidiol (CBD) mimics the effect of 2-AG.
Exogenous cannabinoids found in cannabis share a similar structure with endocannabinoids, so they are able to fit into the cannabinoid receptor “locks” found in our nervous system. This allows exogenous cannabinoids to mimic the effect of endocannabinoids, thereby influencing the function of numerous systems in our bodies.
This is how cannabis exerts its enjoyable recreational effects, and also explains many of the medical benefits of cannabis. So, every time you use cannabis, it is reacting with your endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system is a complex but very important bodily system, and without experiments using cannabis, we never would have discovered it. The legalization of cannabis would allow scientists to conduct further research into everything the endocannabinoid system can do for us medically.
While there’s a lot we’ve already learned about the endocannabinoid system, there’s still more to understand. If you liked this article, make sure to share it with a friend who exercises their endocannabinoid system!
Effects of the Endocannabinoid System in Our Bodies
We mentioned that the endocannabinoid system is like other bodily systems such as respiratory or cardiovascular in that it has specific jobs in our bodies. So what is the endocannabinoid system’s role? Experiments on rodents have shown that endocannabinoids play an important role in numerous systems in our bodies:
Scientists have discovered that a certain type of genetically modified mouse, known as CB1 knockout mice, have improved long-term memory. These findings are supported by experiments in which THC disrupted processes related to the storage of memories.
Endocannabinoids react with receptors in the spinal cord to modulate our response to pain. An endocannabinoid called palmitoylethanolamide has been shown to interact with certain receptors to reduce our perceived level of pain via a complex process. A similar response may explain the painkilling effects experienced when we consume cannabis.
Increased levels of some endogenous and exogenous cannabinoids are known to promote sleep, as well as increasing the frequency of deep sleep and REM sleep.
Cannabinoids interact with the immune system on various levels to reduce inflammation and influence the effect of various types of immune cells. These effects explain how cannabis can help with diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Both exogenous and endogenous cannabinoids can powerfully affect our moods. Stressful situations can increase the production of anandamide in our bodies thereby lessening the unpleasant effects of stress.
Similarly, aerobic exercise is known to promote the release of anandamide, which may explain the mood-lifting effects of exercise, commonly known as the “runner’s high.”