What is the Endocannabinoid System?

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In this article, we will discuss the ins and outs of the endocannabinoid system, which plays an outsized role in regulating your body’s vital functions but was only discovered in 1992.

You may have heard of your central nervous system or the lymphatic system or endocrine system or your digestive system—but what about a system that helps to keep all those other systems in balance?

Scientists have discovered that the endocannabinoid system (ECS), found in humans and other mammals, is vital to maintaining “homeostasis,” or balance, of various physiological processes in order to sustain healthy cognitive and bodily functions. A few of those processes include regulation of hormone production and cellular activity, as well as triggering autoimmune response, among many other processes.

Though there’s much more research to be done, current data indicates that the endocannabinoid system plays a tremendously important role in maintaining overall health and well being.

Now, if you drop the “endo” from “cannabinoid,” you’ll get the scientific term for plant compounds that are derived from cannabis—and with good reason.

Endocannabinoid System Explained

While endocannabinoids are naturally occurring molecular compounds produced by our bodies, cannabinoids are produced by plants with a similar molecular structure that mimics endocannabinoids. Both types of molecules easily bond with endocannabinoid receptors found throughout the body, which then trigger, modify, or modulate different body processes, resulting in various physiological effects.

This is how cannabinoids, like THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) or CBD, produces various effects. The psychoactive effect makes THC the most notorious of all the cannabinoids, but it is only one of 113 cannabinoids found in cannabis. THC is often described as evoking “euphoria,” though it can also produce effects of relaxation, pain relief, increased appetite, and even anxiety. But other cannabinoids, like CBD (cannabidiol), also have effects; CBD is noted for having potent anti-seizure and anti-inflammatory benefits.

CB1 and CB2 Receptors in Endocannabinoid System

So far, researchers have identified several types of receptors in the body that react to cannabinoids including two endocannabinoid receptors called CB1 and CB2, which are found throughout the body.

CB1 receptors can be found in the brain, central nervous system, kidneys, liver, lungs, digestive tract, and sexual organs. CB2 receptors are found in the tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow, which some experts believe may indicate a significant relation between the endocannabinoid system and the immune system.

Notably, there are no endocannabinoid receptors located in the basal regions of the brain that control vital functions, like breathing or heart rate; this is the reason why no one has ever suffered a fatal overdose of cannabis. Highly addictive opioid-based substances do affect this area of the brain, risking tragic results that are evident with the current epidemic of overdose deaths in the U.S. and globally.

In contrast, a recent study showed that CBD oil may help to lessen the urge to relapse for opioid users. Several U.S. states are currently considering adding opioid addiction to their lists of qualifying conditions, to obtain certification for medical marijuana.

Understanding how CB1 and CB2 react to various cannabinoids (and other compounds) has created exciting new potential for areas of treatments and medical applications. Researchers, like KushyCBD Head Scientist and Director of Research Carolina V. Mitchell, expect more endocannabinoid receptor sites to be identified as studies expand, in response to increased public interest in cannabis.

Carolina Vasquez Mitchell Photo Outside

Research of all the cannabinoids (and other compounds, like terpenes) derived from cannabis is also expected to yield profound possibilities for medical applications to treat many chronic, hard-to-treat medical conditions through cannabinoid supplementation.

Endocannabinoid System and Medical Conditions

Just a few medical conditions that have shown links to the endocannabinoid system include:

  • A 2017 study found a link between endocannabinoids and treatment of pain related to endometriosis.
  • In 2018, study results indicated that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in neuro-protection against stress-related neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Researchers that conducted a 2017 study on the effects of cannabinoids on Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) suggested further research into the role of the endocannabinoid system and effects on the digestive system.
  • In 2017, researchers concluded that stimulation of the endocannabinoid system may have potential benefits for those suffering with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • Researchers in a 2017 study looked at the connection between chronic pain caused by rheumatoid inflammation and endocannabinoids, and concluded that results showed evidence of “therapeutic potential of endocannabinoids therapy in arthritis and chronic musculoskeletal pain syndromes.”
  • The link between the endocannabinoid system and epilepsy has been studied more extensively; cannabinoid treatment with CBD oil has proved to be a significant area for development of anti-seizure therapies.

At the root of these significant medical advances is the work of pioneering Israeli organic chemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who was the first to identify THC in 1964, with a research team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Dr. Mechoulam was at Hebrew University in 1992, when he and colleagues identified the first endocannabinoid, establishing the basis for the existence of the endocannabinoid system.

In 1988, a team at St. Louis University School of Medicine discovered CB1 and CB2 receptors, revealing the existence of the endocannabinoid system in mammals.

Sadly, research necessary to expand on these revolutionary advances has been greatly delayed by ongoing federal prohibition of cannabis in the U.S. Currently, cannabis is still categorized as schedule I drug by the DEA, which means it is still federally prohibited, though more and more U.S. states have legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use.

In 2018, the first cannabis-derived drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, then specifically rescheduled by the Drug Enforcement Agency, enabling its sale in conventional pharmacies. Called Epidiolex, the medication treats seizures related to two forms of extreme pediatric epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

Cannabis industry research scientists, like Carolina and the team at KushyCBD, are optimistic further research will reveal the potent medical benefits of cannabinoids, like CBD, and other compounds that will be used in organic, plant-based therapies for a spectrum of medical conditions.

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