The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid.
Cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis.
The endocannabinoid system plays a role in regulating a range of your body functions and processes, including:
· reproduction and fertility
All human beings have active endocannabinoid systems, even if they don’t use cannabis.
How does the ECS work?
The endocannabinoid system involves three core components:
What are endocannabinoids?
Your body makes endocannabinoids molecules that are similar to cannabinoids, but produced internally.
To date, experts have identified two key endocannabinoids:
· anandamide (AEA)
· 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG)
These endocannabinoids help keep your internal functions running smoothly. Your body produces them as needed, making it difficult to measure a typical base level.
How do endocannabinoid receptors function?
You have these receptors throughout your body, and endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action.
There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:
· CB1 receptors, mostly found in the central nervous system.
· CB2 receptors, mostly found in your peripheral nervous system, especially in immune cells.
Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor, then produce effects based on the receptor’s location and the binding endocannabinoid. For example, endocannabinoids might target a CB1 receptor in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body is experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders.
What are Enzymes?
Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function.
The two main ECS-related enzymes are:
· fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA
· monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which typically breaks down 2-AG
What are the functions of the ECS?
The endocannabinoid system is complicated, and experts haven’t yet determined exactly how it works or the scope of its potential functions.
Research Trusted Source has linked the endocannabinoid system to the following processes:
· appetite and digestion
· inflammation and other immune system responses
· learning and memory
· motor control
· cardiovascular system function
· muscle formation
· bone remodeling and growth
· liver function
· reproductive system function
· skin and nerve function
These all contribute to homeostasis, which refers to the 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 endocannabinoid system kicks in to help your body return to its ideal operation. Today, experts believe that maintaining homeostasis is the primary role of the ECS.
How does THC interact with the ECS?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the main cannabinoids found in cannabis. It’s the compound that gets you “high.”
Once in your body, THC interacts with your endocannabinoid system by binding to receptors, just like endocannabinoids. It’s powerful partly because it can bind to both CB1 and CB2 receptors.
This allows it to have a range of effects on your body and mind, some more desirable than others. For example, THC may help to reduce pain and stimulate your appetite. But it can also cause paranoia and anxiety.
Experts are currently exploring ways to produce synthetic THC cannabinoids that interact with the endocannabinoid system in only beneficial ways.
How does CBD interact with the ECS?
Cannabidiol (CBD)is the other major cannabinoid found in cannabis. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t make you “high” and typically doesn’t cause any negative effects.
Experts aren’t completely sure how CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system. But they do know that it doesn’t bind to CB1 or CB2 receptors the way THC does.
Instead, some believe that it works by preventing endocannabinoids from breaking down. This allows them to have more of an effect on your body. Others believe that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t yet been discovered.
While the details of how it works are still under debate, research suggests that CBD can help with pain, nausea, and other symptoms associated with multiple chronic or acute conditions.
What is endocannabinoid deficiency?
Some experts believe in a theory known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD). This theory suggests that low endocannabinoid levels in your body or ECS dysfunction can contribute to the development of certain conditions.
A 2016 article Trusted Source reviewing over 10 years of research on the subject suggests endocannabinoid deficiency could explain why some people develop migraine, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.
None of these conditions have a clear underlying cause. They’re also often resistant to treatment and sometimes occur in clusters.
If CECD does play a role in these conditions, targeting the endocannabinoid system or endocannabinoid production could be the missing key to treatment, but more research is needed.
So, what's the bottom line?
The endocannabinoid system plays a big role in stabilizing your internal processes. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about the ECS. As experts develop a better understanding of the endocannabinoid system, it could eventually hold the key to treating several conditions.