The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is located in almost every system in the human body and works to create and maintain homeostasis. The ECS has only been recognized since the 1988, when the first receptor was discovered. Identifying the receptor led to the realization that our body had an entire system that up until then, had gone unnoticed and unstudied. Still, it was years before the ECS became more widely recognized. In fact, the ECS was only first mentioned in scientific peer-reviewed literature as recently as 2000. Better late than never though, as the endocannabinoids system is finally a recognized and researched system in the human body, opening up gateways for pain and sleep management, and so much more.
The ECS is an assembly of messengers, receptors, and enzymes, all working together to keep the body in balance. It is important to note that there are two kinds of cannabinoids: endocannabinoids, which are produced entirely by the human body, and phytocannabinoids, which are produced by plants. ‘Endo’ comes from the Greek word ‘within’, because the cannabinoids are produced within the body. ‘Phyto’ indicates in medical terms, pertaining to or concerning plants. For now, we’ll just discuss endocannabinoids as we are looking at what the body itself produces without any outside interference.
How Does it Work?
There are three main players in the endocannabinoid system. They are the endocannabinoids themselves, the cannabinoid receptors, and the molecular enzymes which both produce and then eliminate the endocannabinoids. (Note that those same cannabinoid receptors will also respond to and bond to phytocannabinoids.)
To put it simply: when the body is put out of balance, it produces endocannabinoids, which correct the issue. It’s as straightforward as that. The upset of balance could be the result of a range of causes. Say your body just needs a little boost to the immune system or rather, is responding to bout of insomnia. Whatever the case is, an alert is set off by receptors on the outside of cells that notifies the ECS that it needs to produce some endocannabinoids to right the ship.
The body gets the alert and then releases the endocannabinoids to the cannabinoid receptors. The endocannabinoids then bind to the cannabinoid receptors, which utilize the endocannabinoids to restore homeostasis in the body. Once the work is done, the molecular enzymes which produced the endocannabinoids then terminate them. The reason is that this termination prevents a fresh imbalance in the body caused by too many endocannabinoids. This is all without plant intervention, it is 100% produced by the body alone.
So we know that endocannabinoids are nothing without receptors. The endocannabinoids need something to bind to in order to do their job, but the receptors also serve as the alarm system on the outside of the cell, alerting the body that something is wrong in the first place.
We have to two types of receptors in the ECS; the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptor. Each target different areas in the body to maintain overall balance. Both the CB1 and CB2 receptors sit on the outside of a cell, where they take in the information of the body. They act as a sort of home alarm system, setting off an alert when things are not right and attracting and binding to the endocannabinoids for help as they respond to the threat.
The CB1 receptors are attached to the central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, the brain, lungs, muscles, and more. It is the most prevalent receptor in the entire brain. The CB2 receptors on the other hand, are located outside of the brain and work mainly with the immune system. These receptors deal with pain management, bones, spleen, and liver, amongst other things.
There are two types of known endocannabinoids: anandamide, or AEA, and 2- Arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG. AEA is also known as the ‘bliss molecule’ because it comes from the Sanskrit word, ‘anada’ meaning ‘bliss’. It was discovered in 1992. As far as we know, this molecule impacts memory. Both AEA and 2-AG bind equally as well to CB1 and CB2 receptors.
We’ve learned and continue to learn through more than eighty years of research that endocannabinoids receptors regulate sleep, inflammation, immunity, pain management, and so much more. Right now, researchers are studying how to isolate certain cannabinoids from plants, extract them, and utilize them for healthier, longer lives. We have the discovery and research into the endocannabinoid system to thank for the great strides we’ve made in legalizing and removing the stigma of cannabinoids. The future is bright for endocannabinoid system research!