One of the first terms you’ll come across when learning about CBD is the endocannabinoid system. Everything you need to know about CBD starts with it. In fact, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the reason various compounds in cannabis have any effect on the human body at all.
It goes much further than that, though.
The ECS is a powerhouse of a biological system. Yet before the 1990s, nobody even knew it existed. Today, we know the ECS regulates functions for many bodily processes, from cardiovascular function to our immune and nervous systems.
The ECS has many components and can feel overwhelming or intimidating to learn about. Don’t worry. We’ll break it down to make it easier to digest.
Let’s start by breaking down the name. The endocannabinoid system is made up of cannabinoid receptors, endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) and various enzymes.
The role of the endocannabinoid system is to keep the body at homeostasis. Basically, your body is working to maintain balance at all times, keeping a consistent internal environment by making adjustments as cells receive information about changing conditions. Homeostasis is important to maintain because, with unbalanced internal conditions, certain processes may malfunction and have negative health effects.
Cannabinoids are one of many natural components that make up the cannabis plant. You can think of them as chemical compounds. The two most common cannabinoids found in cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
It’s important to recognize that while there are cannabinoids found in plants, called phytocannabinoids, there are also naturally-occurring cannabinoids produced by our bodies. These are called endocannabinoids.
There are two well-known endocannabinoids produced by our bodies: 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) and arachidonoyl ethanolamide (anandamide). And while we’re used to hearing about plant-based cannabinoids interacting with our ECS, it’s important to note that the ECS can be stimulated in different ways without cannabis. That’s why endocannabinoids exist.
Cannabinoid receptors transmit information to cells. If conditions are changing, receptors transmit this information and prompt a suitable cellular response. There are several cannabinoid receptors in our bodies, but the best-understood are cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2).
Both receptors are present throughout the body. But CB1 receptors are most abundant in the central nervous system, or the brain and spinal cord. When THC is consumed, the cannabinoid activates CB1 receptors in the brain, causing users to get high.
On the other hand, CB2 receptors are most abundant outside of the nervous system in peripheral tissues. When CBD is consumed, it doesn’t bind directly to either CB1 or CB2 receptors. Instead, it modifies their ability to bind with and interact with cannabinoids and causes indirect changes to the receptors. Because it doesn’t activate CB1, CBD cannot get users high.
The final component of the ECS is enzymes. Their role is to dispose of cannabinoids after they’ve been used. Think of them as cleaning up after the cannabinoids have done their job to prevent them from overstaying their welcome.
We haven’t covered everything for this powerful biological system. Now that we’ve given an overview of the three main components of the ECS, we can take a look at other pathways and receptors involved in the ECS.
Studies have found that many effects associated with endocannabinoid signaling, such as stress responses, are partially tied to its ability to regulate the serotonin (5-HT) system. Endocannabinoids can modulate the body’s stress response by acting on the serotonin system.
Similarly, phytocannabinoids can act on these receptors as well. For example, CBD has been shown to have a good affinity with the serotonin receptor, 5-HT1A.
PPARs (peroxisome-proliferator-activated receptors) are hormone receptors that have been shown to be activated by endocannabinoids and endocannabinoid-like compounds, aka phytocannabinoids.
Some physiological responses caused by activation of PPARs may include neuroprotection, cognitive protection, pain relief, reduced inflammation, and more.
G protein-coupled receptor 55, or GPR55 is a protein receptor that is believed to function as a cannabinoid receptor. Its activation is suggested to increase calcium within the cells.
Transient receptor potential (TRP) channels are suggested to act as cannabinoid receptors, as well. TRP channels are groups of proteins involved in a number of chemical processes and may play a large role in skin health.
Remember when we said learning about the endocannabinoid system can be overwhelming? It’s a complicated system and there are so many parts to it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As more research comes out about this incredible biological system, we’ll have an even better understanding of all its functions.
Still, we hope we’ve helped clear up some of the confusion around the ECS and its role in maintaining homeostasis.