What is the Endocannabinoid System?

What is the ECS?

Inside of each of us exists a system that regulates many physiological functions.  This network is called the endocannabinoid system. It positively balances gastrointestinal activity, cardiovascular function, pain perception, maintenance of bone density, neuronal protection, hormonal regulation, metabolism, immune function, and inflammatory response.  The Endocanabinoid system, or ECS, was not discovered until recently and is finally being thoroughly researched. This amazing system has one main goal which is to maintain homeostasis in the body. The ECS does this by balancing the flow of information being sent between cells. Research on the ECS has a fascinating history, which you will enjoy learning about.

Humble Origins

Surprisingly, the discovery of the ECS started with marijuana research. In 1964, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his team at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in Israel isolated THC, the mind altering substance in cannabis sativa (marijuana).  Dr. Mechoulam’s interest in cannabis was based upon his encounter with historical accounts of medicinal uses for the plant. “One of the topics I decided to work on was the chemistry of the plant Cannabis Sativa.  Cannabis had been used for thousands of years both as a drug, as a recreational agent.” -Raphael Mechoulam (1)   Dr. Mechoulam’s research was looking for the active compound in cannabis sativa that caused its effects.  The researchers extracted multiple compounds from cannabis and through animal testing discovered and isolated THC for the first time.  THC, short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the first, but not the last medicinal compound discovered in the cannabis plant.

The Search for a Receptor

Twenty six years later in 1990 scientists finally understood how THC caused psychoactivity in mammals. Dr. Allyn Howlett, a biochemical neuropharmacologist and her team at St. Louis University discovered the first cannabinoid receptor by using radioactive dye. Dr. Howlett chemically attached this “dye” to a synthetic THC molecule and introduced it into rats.(2)

By doing so, Howlett and her team were able to follow where the THC went in the brain. They found THC selectively attached to specific receptor sites in the brain.  These sites were concentrated in areas of the brain associated with the effects of marijuana. The hippocampus, cerebral cortex, cerebellum, basal ganglia, hypothalamus, and amygdala all had an abundance of these receptors.  These regions of the brain correspond to memory, cognition, motor coordination, movement, appetite, and emotions. They named the receptor sites they discovered CB1 receptors.(3)

Human Endocannabinoid System

The CB2 Receptor

Following the discovery of the CB1 receptor, a team of scientists at Cambridge university began to look for other cannabinoid receptors.  They postulated that other receptor types must exist to explain the effects of marijuana consumption. The CB1 receptor was responsible for some of the effects of cannabis consumption yet did not account for all of the effects of the plant.  In 1993 the team at Cambridge discovered the CB2 receptor through DNA sequencing techniques.(4)  They found that CB2 receptors were prevalent in the brain, immune system, gastrointestinal system, and peripheral nervous system.  The CB2 receptor is the cannabinoid receptor type that interacts with CBD.

Our Bodies Produce Their Own Cannabinoids

After Howlett’s research, scientists started hypothesizing that the human body must have its own system of endocannabinoids. Endo, Greek for “within”, means that these cannabinoids are produced in our own bodies.  The reasoning for this is that we would not have receptors for cannabinoids if our body did not need them on a regular basis. It is unlikely that our bodies would have receptors for a specific plant compound that might never be ingested.  Based on these ideas researchers began looking for human endocannabinoids. By 1992, the first of two major endocannabinoids was found. It was Dr. Mechoulam and his team who made the discovery.  They named this cannabinoid Anandamide (AEA), derived from the Sanskrit word for bliss. In 1995, a second endocannabinoid was discovered, 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Both AEA and 2-AG were classified as endogenous compounds. Since then research on these compounds and their functions have exploded. Based on these discoveries scientists named this system of receptors and endocannabinoids the endocannabinoid system (ECS).(5)

What Does The ECS Do?

The endocannabinoid system is composed of the endocannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2  and their two endocannabinoids AEA and 2-AG. The main role of the ECS is to maintain homeostasis by regulating the flow of cellular signals being sent throughout the body. The ECS makes sure that the internal environment (our body) responds appropriately to changes in the external environment (the world in which we live). Italian researcher Vincenzo Di Marzo, PhD, says, “The endocannabinoid system is essential to life and affects how we relax, eat, sleep, forget and protect”.(6

The endocannabinoid system becomes more active when the body experiences prolonged disruptions.  This can come from internal stress, inflammation, infection, emotional imbalance, environmental stressors, and other situations that disrupt homeostasis.  In some situations the ECS becomes overburdened or does not function properly from extended periods of physical and emotional stress on the body. In these cases it is extremely important to supplement the body’s ECS to regain optimal functioning of this system.

Takeaway

In this article we have discussed the body’s endocannabinoid system.  We’ve looked at the history of its discovery, the basics of its structure, and a little bit about its function in the body.  It is a complicated topic and I hope to have given a basic understanding of why it is important to care for your ECS.  

Modern living is filled with a lot of everyday stress that is usually unavoidable.  From the time we wake to when we lie down in the evening our culture is go, go, go. In my practice, I often council people to slow down, relax, and practice meditative techniques.  The unfortunate reality is that for most of us this is very difficult to do. Luckily our body does have systems to help modulate the rigors of life, we just need to nourish them.  

In more pastoral times our bodies had time to rest and recover.  In modern life we rarely get to do this, thus it becomes extremely important to nourish our ECS.  A high quality CBD oil is an excellent way to do this. Hummingbird Botanicals CBD Oil is a high quality product that has been formulated by herbalists and every phase of production is quality controlled and tested before our products are sent off for final 3rd party testing to ensure you are getting the strongest, safest, and best products available.

References:

  1. Documentary “The Scientist” Y.Klinik Productions Ltd. 21 Yonitzman, Tel-Aviv, Israel. http://mechoulamthescientist.com
  2.  Devane WA1, Dysarz FA 3rdJohnson MRMelvin LSHowlett AC. Determination and characterization of a cannabinoid receptor in rat brain.Mol Pharmacol. 1988 Nov;34(5):60513. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2848184
  3. Pertwee Roger G. Cannabinoid pharmacology: the first 66 years.Br J Pharmacol. 2006 Jan; 147(Suppl 1): S163–S171.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1760722/
  4. Munro S, Thomas KL, Abu-Shaar M.. Molecular characterization of a peripheral receptor for cannabinoids. Nature 365: 61-65
  5. Lee Martin A.The Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System.The Prop 215 Era. https://www.beyondthc.com/wpcontent/uploads/2012/07/eCBSystemLee.pdf
  6. McPartland John M. Guy Geoffrey W. ,  Di Marzo Vincenzo.Care and Feeding of the Endocannabinoid System: A Systematic Review of Potential Clinical Interventions that Upregulate the Endocannabinoid System. PLoS One. 2014; 9(3): e89566. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951193/

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