The Endocannabinoid System – What Is It? Why Does It Matter?
The endocannabinoid system plays an important function within our bodies. But what is it, why does it matter, and what does it have to do with CBD? Read on to find out.
What is the endocannabinoid system?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex cell-signalling system found within our bodies. Research is still discovering new things about the endocannabinoid system. However, we do know that it has been proven to regulate a number of processes including but not limited to:
- Learning and memory
- The cardiovascular system
Whilst the ECS exists in our body already, it is also capable of interacting with cannabis’s active chemical compounds.
Homeostasis: finding the middle ground
The endocannabinoid system is able to affect these aspects of the body as it plays an important role in homeostasis.
Homeostasis is one of the key aspects of biology, and the best way to think of it is as the middle ground. It regulates the body to maintain certain conditions, so we’re not too hot or too cold, or our blood sugars aren’t too high or too low. And so on. Our bodies need to work within quite a narrow set of parameters for optimal performance and the endocannabinoid system is vital to help maintain homeostasis.
Key elements of the ECS
The endocannabinoid system is present in every vertebrate species and contains three components:
- Cannabinoid receptors on the surface of cells
- Endocannabinoids, small molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors
- Metabolic enzymes that break down used endocannabinoids
So what are each of these components? Here’s a quick guide. It’s quite complex biochemistry, but we’ll try to make it as simple as possible:
Part one: cannabinoid receptors
These receptors are found on cell surfaces and they monitor conditions outside of the cell. They send this information about changing conditions to the inside of the cell, which allows the body to respond in the right way.
The two major receptors are called CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found in the brain and these are the ones that interact with THC (the psychoactive element that’s a feature of cannabis, but not CBD) to get you high. CB2 receptors mainly exist outside the nervous system, in places like the immune system.
Part two: endocannabinoids
Endocannabinoids are molecules that work with the cannabinoid receptors in what is often described as a ‘lock and key’ fashion. They effectively unlock the cannabinoid receptors and allow the ECS to function properly. Endocannabinoids are produced naturally within the body, however they can also be supplemented. CBD, for example, is a type of endocannabinoid.
Part three: metabolic enzymes
The final part of the puzzle is the metabolic enzyme, which destroys endocannabinoids once used. The two large enzymes – FAAH (which breaks down anandamide) and MAGL (which breaks down 2-AG). The job of these enzymes is to ensure that human’s body uses the endocannabinoids only when needed.
These three components make up the endocannabinoid system, which has the main job of keeping our bodies in the middle ground. If we get too hot, for example, the endocannabinoid system kicks in to bring our body back to homeostasis. Or, in other words, the balanced middle ground.
Endocannabinoids in the brain
The brain contains a number of cells – neutrons that communicate with the body by sending signals. The neutrons listen to the body, but they can get overwhelmed if there are too many signals, and that’s when endocannabinoids kick in.
If there are too many signals around the body, endocannabinoids will target the relevant neutron to bring it back to middle ground, and therefore maintain homeostasis.
But they aren’t just working in the brain. Instead, they are there to regulate every system in the body, from digestion to the immune system. Everything needs proper regulation for survival. And endocannabinoids are key to that process.
Endocannabinoid regulation of inflammation
Inflammation is a normal response when the body is trying to fight something, for example infection or a physical injury. Endocannabinoids support this coming along with pro-inflammatory molecules that instruct other immune cells to fight inflammation. This ensures that the body returns to health by destroying germs and coming back to that middle ground.
Where does CBD come in?
It’s taken a while, but it’s important to understand the background before we get to the point. CBD can positively affect overall levels of endocannabinoids in the brain and inhibits the FAAH enzyme (which breaks down anandamide). Research has shown this to be good for treating anxiety, for example.
It’s worth pointing out that, because CBD binds with multiple types of receptors, the full range of its effects extends beyond just the scope of endocannabinoid regulation. Full spectrum CBD oil contains a wide range of additional cannabinoids, which have their own health benefits that scientists are investigating.
Endocannabinoid system conclusions
Because of its complexity, the endocannabinoid system is still a very new subject of study to scientists, having only been discovered a few decades ago. Despite this, its role as a crucial regulatory component of some of the most important biological processes in our bodies is already widely accepted. As hemp-based products such as CBD oil continue to rise in popularity, more information will come to light. And this will enable us to clear up any of the mysteries surrounding the endocannabinoid system. What we know for now is that CBD oil interacts effectively with this system for a large number of people, resulting in a large variety of positive benefits.