7 Cool Facts About The Endocannabinoid System

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The media is all abuzz about the endocannabinoid system, especially as more and more states make medical (and recreational) marijuana legal. When there's a lot of activity about a topic, it's easy to get misinformation, so we thought it would be a good idea to let you know some facts about the endocannabinoid system.

We've known about the endocannabinoid system for only a few decades. Researchers discovered the endocannabinoid system around 1990. That's when a team headed by Lisa Matsuda at the National Institute of Mental Health mapped the DNS sequence associated with a cannabinoid receptor in the brain and cloned it as well. This is pretty amazing when you consider we've known about most of the other bodily systems—the cardiovascular system, nervous system, endocrine system, respiratory system, etc—for at least a century. In fact, in the case of the nervous system, it's been millennia (the third century BC).

Both humans and animals have endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are chemical compounds that trigger the same receptors as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (Cannabis sativa). Studies show that endocannabinoids in animals and humans have a significant role in mood, drug addiction, metabolism, energy balance, inflammation, pain, mood, appetite, sleep, and memory.

Read about demystifying CBD oil (cannabinoid): 7 important facts

Endocannabinoids are different from cannabinoid THC. Similar to the plant cannabinoid THC, endocannabinoids attach themselves to and activate cannabinoid receptors. However, endocannabinoids are different than THC because they are made naturally by cells in the body. The two main endocannabinoids manufactured by the body are 2-AG and anandamide, both of which are made in the mammalian brain and body on demand; that is, only when the body needs them and not produced and stored for the future. 

The endocannabinoid system is critical for human health. This system plays a crucial role in regulating both emotional/mental and physical status and activities. Basically, it is responsible for maintaining homeostasis—it helps the entire body stay in balance and all of the body's cells to operate at their best. Every system in the body needs to stay in balance for the body to function properly. That's a tall order.

The endocannabinoid system is composed of three components. They include:

  • Cannabinoid receptors, which are located on the surface of cells so they are easily accessible
  • Endocannabinoids, which are tiny molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors
  • Metabolic enzymes (i.e., FAAH and MAGLO), which metabolize or breakdown endocannabinoids after they have been used and are no longer necessary

There are two main cannabinoid receptors. Although CB1 and CB2 are not the only two cannabinoid receptors that exist, they are the first ones experts discovered and have studied most extensively. The CB1s appear to be the most prevalent receptors in the brain and are the ones that interact with THC, which has a psychoactive impact. CB2s are most commonly found outside of the brain and spinal cord (the nervous system) in the immune system. 

Read about cannabinoids: the miracle compounds behind cannabis

The endocannabinoid system can be instrumental in fighting inflammation. According to Professor Prakash Nagarkatti, vice president for research at the University of South Carolina, focusing attention on the endocannabinoid system may help in the treatment of inflammatory diseases. "Most of our research demonstrates that endocannabinoids are produced upon activation of immune cells and may help regulate the immune response by acting as anti-inflammatory agents." This suggests that "interventions that manipulate the metabolism or production of endocannabinoids may serve as a novel treatment modality against a wide range of inflammatory disease."

Clinical endocannabinoid system deficiency could explain some diseases. Some experts believe a condition called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) could be the underlying cause of certain painful conditions such as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraine, among others, that can be relieved by the use of cannabis. Several investigations into this connection have been performed, and the findings have been positive.

For example, in a literature review published in 2008, the authors reported that "Cannabinoids have…demonstrated the ability to block spinal, peripheral and gastrointestinal mechanisms that promote pain in a headache, fibromyalgia, IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] and related disorders." The fact that these and related conditions have demonstrated common patterns suggests "an underlying clinical endocannabinoid deficiency that may be suitably treated with cannabinoid medicines."

We can't wait for more discoveries about the endocannabinoid system as time goes on.

[Editor's Note: Hemp-derived CBD supplements are becoming more readily available, some people need solutions that are completely THC free. This is where botanically based supplements like those from our sponsor, Emerald Health Bioceuticals, are a wonderful alternative.]

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Moore M. How the endocannabinoid system was discovered. Labroots 2018 Apr 5
Panegyres KP, Panegyres PK. The ancient Greek discovery of the nervous system: Alcamaeon, Praxagoras and Herophilus. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience 2016 Jul; 29:21-24
Russo EB. Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions? Neuro Endocrinology Letters 2008 Apr; 29(2): 192-200
Smith SC, Wagner MS. Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD) revisited: can this concept explain the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistance conditions. Neuro Endocrinology Letters 2014; 35(3): 198-201
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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.