The Endocannabinoid System (ECS): A Crash Course

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In school, most of us learn about the importance of the central and peripheral nervous systems that help our bodies function. If you are familiar with cannabis, hemp, or their popular cannabinoids (CBD and THC), then you may have also heard of the endocannabinoid system and its importance. Still you may be wondering: What exactly is the ECS and what does it even do?

What is the Endocannabinoid system?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of endogenous cannabinoid receptors found in the brain and throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems of nearly all vertebrates. Research shows that the ECS plays a major role in maintaining homeostasis, which works to keep our body’s internal functions stable and balanced.

The three key components of the ECS are:

Cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body on the surface of cells (CB1 & CB2)

Endocannabinoids, small molecules produced by your body that activate cannabinoid receptors

Metabolic enzymes that break down endocannabinoids after they are used

Using these three components and their interactions, the ECS works to help regulate:
  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • Digestion
  • Liver Function
  • Bone Growth
  • Chronic Pain
  • Inflammation
  • Learning and Memory
  • Motor Control
  • Cardiovascular System
  • Muscle Formation
  • Stress
  • Skin and Nerve Function
  • Reproduction and Fertility.

Our bodies produce two key endocannabinoids:

Anandamide is a neurotransmitter that binds to CB1 receptors in the brain the same way THC does when smoking cannabis. It’s been called the “bliss molecule” due to its calming effects, aptly named “Ananda” after the Sanskrit word for joy or happiness. However, because anandamide is quickly broken down by enzymes, it does not give us the same “high” feeling associated with THC.

2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) was already a known compound before scientists discovered its role in the ECS. It is an ester formed from the omega-6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid and glycerol. It is present at relatively high levels in the central nervous system and has been found in maternal cows and human breast milk.

Metabolic enzymes, specifically Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) and Monoacylglycerol Lipase (MAGL), are responsible for breaking down these endocannabinoids after they’ve served their purpose.

How Does it Work?

Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout your body. When our endocannabinoids bind to these receptors, it signals to the ECS that something needs to take place to help.

There are two main endocannabinoid receptors. CB1 receptors are mainly found in the central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are found in immune cells and your peripheral nervous system.

Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor, with the effects depending on where that receptor is located. By binding to CB1 receptors, ailments such as pain relief are targeted, while binding to CB2 receptors targets inflammation and autoimmune deficiencies.

Why is all of this important?

The main goal of the ECS and the production of endocannabinoids is to optimize and stabilize the body’s functions. Many scientists have determined endocannabinoid deficiencies as a result could contribute to an array of problems in the body.

Enter: phytocannabionoids. Phytocannabinoids produced in the cannabis and hemp plants, such as THC, CBD, CBN and numerous others, have significant anti-inflammation properties and other benefits. These phytocannabinoids are able to interact with and bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors the same way our endocannabinoids do, which may help improve cannabinoid deficiencies in the body.

As more research is done on the ECS and cannabis compounds, it’ll become more apparent how and why they interact and what other benefits phytocannabinoids may offer us.

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