The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex cell-signalling biological system composed of cannabinoid receptors, internal neurotransmitters (endocannabinoids) and cannabinoid receptor proteins expressed throughout the central nervous system (CB1) and peripheral nervous system (CB2). The ECS is active in regulating a range of functions involved in physiological and cognitive processes and contributes to the homeostasis of the body’s internal environment through modulation of immune, cardiovascular and reproductive systems.
Apart from human, all animals, including vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish) and invertebrates (sea urchins, leeches, mussels, nematodes, and others) have been found to have endocannabinoid systems.
CB1 and CB2
While CB1 primarily binds to the brain and nervous system, the CB2 receptor mainly interacts with our immune system. Our body naturally produces its own endocannabinoids, but when they are out of balance, we feel things like anxiety, stress, other mood disorders and may even have trouble sleeping.
Cannabinoids from the cannabis plant like CBD, CBDA, THC and others can mimic our body’s natural endocannabinoids. They bind to our CB1 and CB2 receptors to produce their many potential health benefits.
The various cannabinoids produce different benefits because they each have unique characteristics and bind to our receptors differently. Often, cannabinoids work even better in tandem with other cannabinoids and compounds, a phenomenon is known as the entourage effect.
How does ECS work?
The ECS helps the body maintain functional balance through its three main components: “messenger” molecules that our bodies synthesise, the receptors these molecules bind to and the enzymes that break them down. Many researches has linked the ECS to the following processes:
- appetite and digestion
- chronic pain
- inflammation and other immune system responses
- learning and memory
- motor control
- cardiovascular system function
- muscle formation
- bone remodelling and growth
- liver function
- reproductive system function
- skin and nerve function
These functions all contribute to homeostasis, which refers to stability of your internal environment. For example, if an outside force, such as pain from an injury or a fever, throws off your body’s homeostasis, your ECS kicks in to help your body return to its ideal operation. Today, experts believe that maintaining homeostasis is the primary role of the ECS.
Pain and Inflammation
Both anandamide and 2-AG play a role in modulating pain — both neuropathic and inflammatory — through CB1 and CB2 receptor pathways. They have been found in pain-modulating regions throughout the central nervous system, and may have a hand in modulating inflammatory pain through CB2 receptors. When administered exogenously to animals, these cannabinoids have exhibited pain-relieving potential similar to that of exogenous cannabinoids such as THC and CBD.
Mood (Anxiety, Depression)
The endocannabinoid 2-AG may be heavily involved in controlling anxiety and depressive behaviors. A 2014 study on 2-AG levels in mice indicates that 2-AG deficiency could be a contributing cause of anxiety and mood disorders.
Endocannabinoids play an integral role in modulating stress responses. They’re even involved in the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s central stress regulation system.
Appetite and Energy Metabolism (Obesity, Diabetes)
Several studies have shown that CB1-agonist endocannabinoids play a role in regulating appetite and hunger. CB1 receptor antagonists, (compounds that inhibit CB1 receptors, rather than activating them, have also been researched for its role in inhibiting appetite and reducing body weight.
The ECS is spread prominently throughout the cardiovascular system. Under normal conditions, endocannabinoids have a minor role in cardiovascular regulation, but they also have the potential to intervene in instances of hypo- and hypertension.
Through CB1 and CB2 receptor activation, endocannabinoids can play a role in protecting the gastrointestinal tract from inflammation and other high gastric abnormalities.
Healthy Brain Function
The endocannabinoid system is heavily involved in regulating brain function. At different stages of learning and memory, endocannabinoids that activate CB1 receptors may be able to modulate stress and anxiety associated with emotional memory. Endocannabinoids can also have both neuroprotective and neurodegenerative effects. 2-AG contributes to brain homeostasis as both an anti-inflammatory and neuroprotectant. The role of the ECS in healthy brain function makes it an ample target for treating PTSD, addiction, schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative disease.
Healthy Cell Function
The ECS has been heavily implicated in fighting cancer and promoting healthy cell function. Studies have shown the ECS to have massive therapeutic potential in relation to cell proliferation and tumor growth when acted upon by exogenous cannabinoids. These findings also suggest that endocannabinoids play a role in the healthy function of kidney, liver, and bone cells.