The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a human system (like the nervous system) which exists in all mammals. Cannabis flowers contain cells that produce compounds called cannabinoids which are unique because the human body (and all mammals for that matter) can actually produce similar compounds. This system helps to explain how cannabis works, but cannabis is not why it exists.
History of the Endocannabinoid System
THC was first isolated in 1964, but it was not until the late 1980s when scientists were researching the effects of THC on the body that they found an existing system which produces chemicals that act very similarly to cannabinoids. Further research into the 90s enabled the cloning of CB1 and CB2 receptors found in the brain and immune systems. It was later discovered that the ECS exists in humans and mammals, is formed before we’re born, and actually assists with development of our brain synapsis in utero. The most important thing to note is that this system exists even if one has never consumed cannabis.
Multiple human and animal studies support that the ECS plays a role in regulating memory, mood, addiction, immunity, sleep, pain, appetite and metabolic processes such as metabolism and energy balance.
How does the Endocannabinoid System work?
The ECS is designed to respond to our environment, similarly to how our body automatically produces adrenaline when we experience a threat. Our body produces endocannabinoids in the brain and in various tissues throughout the body. We also have endocannabinoid receptors which are found in the brain and bodily tissues.
When the endocannabinoids and the receptors bond, we get a physical response in the body. Endocannabinoid levels can increase due to hunger, stress, pain, exercise, and other factors which lead to increased appetite, pain relief, relaxation, etc. You can think of the ECS as a system that helps to balance our other systems.
CB1 and CB2 Receptors
CB1 receptors effect the central nervous system and are found predominantly in the brain and spinal cord. They assist with behavioral and cerebral activities like memory, thought processes, feelings and emotions, physical motor control, appetite, and pain perception.
CB2 receptors are found in the immune system as well as the peripheral nervous system. CB2 receptors to not typically relate to cerebral or emotional stimulation. Activating these receptors can lead to anti-inflammatory responses, pain relief, muscle relaxation, and even increased immune support.
Cannabinoid receptors are found all over the body and in every major system, reproductive organs, connective tissues, bones and even on our skin.
Plant Medicine and ECS
To get a better understanding we can turn to other plant medicines that work similarly. Morphine for example is an opioid found naturally in poppies. Morphine binds with opioid receptors in the human brain and body blocking pain and flooding the body with dopamine. THC and CBD interact similar with our endocannabinoid receptors, blocking one action and causing another.
How Cannabis Fits In
Think of our endocannabinoids as keys and our CB1 and CB2 receptors as the locks. Cannabis cannabinoids like THC act as an alternative key for our endocannabinoid receptors. THC can either mimic or disrupt the specific function its intercepting (appetite suppression VS increased appetite) which depends on a number of factors.
When we ingest cannabis, cannabinoids such as THC or CBD replace our own endocannabinoids and “lock” into the “key” that are our receptors, thus causing a physical reaction to occur in our bodies. THC tends to link up with CB1 receptors which helps to explain the cognitive and euphoric effects that we experience when we consume it.
THC is just one example of over 100 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant! Others include CBD, CBN, THCV, CBG, and the list goes on… which is its own topic for another day.
The ECS is so intelligent that when it interacts with cannabis, the system is designed not to over-activate. When we consume THC our body’s natural levels of endocannabinoids decrease which also helps to explain how our cannabis tolerance increases with usage.
What’s the difference?
The main difference between our natural endocannabinoids and cannabinoids found in cannabis are how they interact with our receptors. THC can cause multiple effects at once and is not as precise as our natural endocannabinoids, which is why certain strains have multiple effects.
Our own ECS system has the same ability to create mood altering or effect-causing compounds, but through individual compounds. Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word ananda meaning “joy, bliss, delight”, is a feel good, euphoric endocannabinoid that we produce naturally. It also binds to CB1, so in a way consuming cannabis is just an alternative way to initiate and mimic a naturally occurring reaction in our bodies.
Learn more at MCC
There is so much to learn about cannabis! The above is just an introduction to the ECS and we know it can be a bit shocking but we encourage you to do your own research and find an explanation that makes sense to you.
We’re excited to offer more educational resources with the opening of our new consumption lounge this January! Make sure to stay tuned for talks and networking events where we can learn all there is to know about this powerful plant. If you have any questions, you can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or stop on by!
Article written by Alexa Jesse.