What is the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system, or endogenous cannabinoid system, is named after the plant associated with its discovery, and is arguably the most significant physiologic system known to affect our wellbeing.
Endocannabinoids exist throughout the body: in the brain, the vital organs, connective tissues, immune cells and glands. The cannabinoid system performs different functions in each body tissue, but always with the same goal of maintaining a consistent internal environment despite external fluctuations, through homeostasis.
Cannabinoids are essential to the process of homeostasis in every sector of biological life, ranging from the cellular, to the organism itself.
An example of the essential functions of cannabinoids is seen in autophagy. This is a cellular process, assisted by the cannabinoid system, through which a cell separates a portion of its contents to be digested and recycled. The process forms an important part of a cell’s longevity, enabling it to keep a balance between synthesis and degradation, and fulfils a vital role in the fight against cancer, forcing malignant cells to eat themselves. The removal of cancer cells is a crucial part of promoting homeostasis and the survival of the organism.
Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids can also be found at the points where the body’s system come together, facilitating communication between the different types of cells. For example, around the location of an injury, cannabinoids perform a role in slowing the release of sensitizers and activators, helping to stabilize nerve cells to prevent their firing, and calming local immune cells to inhibit the release of inflammatory causing substances. All three functions serve a central purpose: to minimize damage and pain.
In this sense, due to its complicated functions in both the immune and nervous systems, the endocannabinoid system is a bridge between the mind and the body. It is through studying how this system works that we begin to see a real-world mechanism showing how an individual’s state of consciousness can lead to disease or health.
As well as mediating cellular homeostasis, cannabinoids can have an influence on how we see and interact with the external environment. It is apparent socially that cannabinoids can change human behavior, in many cases, promoting qualities such as humour and creativity, along with a desire to share. It is possible that by affecting neurogenesis and neuronal plasticity, cannabinoids can influence an individual’s capacity to be open-minded and to step out of limiting ways of thinking and entrenched behavioural habits. And in our rapidly changing world, changing these engrained patterns is essential to wellbeing.
What are cannabinoid receptors?
All vertebrate species, along with sea squirts and nematodes, have the endocannabinoid system in common, which is essential to their ability to adapt to dramatic changes in the environment. Through comparing the genetic changes in the cannaboid receptors across a range of species, scientists have been able to estimate that the endocannabinoid system first evolved around 600 million years ago.
There have been around 20,000 articles and research papers written on cannabinoids, so you might think we already know all there is to know about them, but in fact, there are large gaps in our knowledge. In particular, our understanding of the way that cannabinoids, cells and other systems interact is incomplete.
We know that there are cannabinoid receptors in cell membranes throughout the body, and that there may be more of them than any other type of receptor. When these receptors receive stimulation, a number of physiologic processes are triggered. Researchers have so far found a pair of cannabinoid receptors: CB1, which is found in glands, connective tissues, nerve structures and organs; and CB2, which is most common in the immune system. Some researchers have also proposed that there may be a third cannabinoid yet to be discovered.
These receptors are stimulated by substances that our bodies produce naturally, called endocannabinoids. The most well-known of these chemicals are anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). These molecules are produced by derivatives of arachidonic acid, and have a localized effect, being dissolved after a relatively short time by the chemicals monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) and fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH).
Phytocannabinoids are chemicals found in plants known to work on cannabinoid receptors. The most well-known of these substances is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, but researchers are becoming increasingly interested in others such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) for their potential to promote wellbeing. Most of these phytocannabinoids have been obtained from the cannabis sativa plant, but non-psychoactive cannabinoids have been found in other herbs, including echinacea purpura.
It is interesting to note that the cannabis plant itself uses cannabinoids including THC to fight off disease and to maintain its own health. Cannabinoids possess antioxidant properties and these help to safeguard the plant structures from ultraviolet radiation by neutralizing the free radicals produced in UV rays. It is well-known that free radicals promote aging, cancer, and poor illness recovery in humans, and the antioxidants found in some plants have long been considered a useful natural supplement in the fight to prevent free radical damage.
It is also possible to produce cannabinoids in a laboratory setting. Nabilone, a THC analog, and Dronabinol, a form of synthetic THC, have both been approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of nausea. Doctors have also found these drugs to be useful in treating conditions such as migraines and chronic pain. A wide range of synthetic cannabinoids are currently employed in animal research, some of which have a potency 600 times greater than THC.
Cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and good health
The science of cannabinoids continues to make fascinating discoveries, but one thing is clear: an effective cannabinoid system is an essential component to our wellbeing. So is it possible for us to enhance or boost our cannabinoid system through cannabis or cannabinoid supplements? Can cannabis help us to ward off disease and ensure good health through the stimulation of an ancient, hard-wired human system?
There is research to show that the small doses of cannabinoids that we get from cannabis can trigger the body’s endocannabinoid production and lead to the creation of more cannabinoid receptors. This may help to explain why cannabis users often don’t experience any effects until their second or third time, as the body takes time to build sufficient cannabinoid receptors. An increase in receptors heightens the individual’s sensitivity to cannabinoids; giving the individual a higher baseline for endocannabinoid stimulation. It is my belief that regular, small cannabis doses can work as a tonic for this essential healing system.
Unlike synthetic cannabis derivatives, the herbal version may contain well over 100 cannabinoids, which interact synergistically, producing fewer side effects than isolated THC alone. The evidence provided by science and by users clearly indicates that herbal cannabis boasts superior qualities to the laboratory-produced synthetic alternative.
The bottom line is that feeding your endocannabinoid system is a good way to promote wellbeing and everyday health!
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