An Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

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Did you know that there is a system within the body designed to process cannabinoids like Cannabidiol (CBD)? It’s called the endocannabinoid system, or ECS, and it is one of the most amazing components of the human body.
To fully understand how CBD works and the ways it can help the body, it’s crucial to first understand what the endocannabinoid system is, how it works, and where it operates throughout the body.
Lucky for you, that’s exactly what we’ll be discussing in this article!

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

The ECS is a cell-signaling system that was first identified in the 1990s. It was named for cannabinoids, which are the compounds in the cannabis plant that interact with the body. Researchers have identified more than 100 different cannabinoid compounds, and each have a different effect on the body. Two of the most well-known cannabinoid compounds are THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, and CBD, a non-psychoactive compound that is commonly used to help with a number of ailments.
The endocannabinoid system doesn’t rely on these external compounds to function, though. Even if you have never consumed THC or CBD, your endocannabinoid receptors are working hard to keep your body healthy. The system plays a key role in maintaining homeostasis, which is your body’s way of keeping everything in balance. Endocannabinoids help to stabilize the body whenever it gets thrown off. For example, the system helps with regulating your hormone levels, your temperature, and your heart rate. If something isn’t working just right, your body will activate the endocannabinoid process to correct the problem.

The Parts of the ECS

There are three main parts to this system: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids: Endocannabinoids are molecules that are produced by the body. They interact with the body in a similar way to cannabinoid compounds, but they come from within your body rather than from the cannabis plant.
So far, researchers have discovered two endocannabinoids: anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglyerol. These compounds help to keep all of your body’s processes running normally. Your body creates them as it needs them, so your levels of endocannabinoids may vary from day to day.
Endocannabinoid Receptors: Endocannabinoid receptors are located throughout the entire body. When endocannabinoids bind to these receptors, they signal the ECS to take action. The effect depends on which receptors are involved and which endocannabinoid they bind with.
The two main receptors are CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found primarily in the central nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord. CB2 receptors are found in the peripheral nervous system, which includes all of the nerves in your extremities. CB2 receptors are also located in your digestive system and your immune system.
Just like endocannabinoids, cannabinoid compounds can bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors. Different compounds may bind to different receptors, so no two cannabinoids have exactly the same effects.
Enzymes: Enzymes are the substances that break down endocannabinoid and cannabinoid molecules once they’ve fulfilled their role. The two main enzymes involved in this process are fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down anandamide, and monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which breaks down 2-arachidonoylglyerol. Enzymes play a vital role in the system because they prevent the endocannabinoids from having too strong of an impact and throwing the balance off in the opposite direction.

Functions of the Endocannabinoid System

Experts are still trying to figure out exactly how this system works. They know it is involved in a number of the body’s functions, but they do not yet have a complete list of all of the roles endocannabinoids play.

Studies suggest that endocannabinoids are linked to the following processes and systems:

  • Pain and inflammation
  • Appetite, digestion, and metabolism
  • Learning and memory
  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Reproductive system
  • Muscle and bone growth
  • Skin and nerve function

Researchers believe that the endocannabinoid process is activated anytime one of these functions has a problem. Whenever something in the body is thrown off balance, the body produces endocannabinoids to help return itself to normal.

CBD, THC, and the ECS

Cannabis products stimulate the endocannabinoid system, which is why so many experts believe that the plant has medicinal qualities. Although cannabinoid molecules function similarly to endocannabinoids, they may have a more powerful effect on the body. However, each type of compound has a different effect.

THC, one of the main compounds in marijuana, binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors. This is why it has psychoactive effects as well as physical effects on the body. For example, research suggests that THC may help to decrease pain and stimulate appetite. It also may cause anxiety and paranoia in some people, though.

CBD, or Cannabidiol, is an important cannabinoid found in hemp and cannabis, which are the two primary classifications of cannabis. CBD does not interact with the body’s endocannabinoid receptors in the same way THC does, so it doesn’t make you feel high. However, many people have reported a wide variety of health benefits from consuming CBD, including decreased pain, inflammation, nausea, and anxiety. Some researchers believe that CBD prevents endocannabinoids from being broken down, and some believe that the compound binds to a receptor that has not yet been discovered.

There are still many unanswered questions about how exactly the endocannabinoid system works. Scientists have known of the system for less than 30 years, so they are still in the early stages of research. Many researchers are hopeful that endocannabinoid and cannabinoid molecules hold the key for treating several health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, neurological illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease, and autoimmune diseases. Although more studies need to be done before we fully understand this complex body system, the research so far on the benefits of endocannabinoid and cannabinoid compounds seem promising.

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