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What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

Before you can start understanding the intricacies of the cannabis world, you really must have a baseline of knowledge about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to understand how these compounds affect your body. Without the ECS, none of the compounds in cannabis would have any effect on you whatsoever. Thankfully, the ECS is spread through our entire system, and it is constantly at work to regulate our bodies.

But the ECS is not only useful to users of cannabis products — the ECS regulates and controls some of our most important functions like sleep, inflammatory and immune responses, learning and memory, pain reception, and appetite. In addition to these natural functions of the ECS in your body, this is the system that also allows you to reap the benefits of cannabis products.

Let's take a deeper look.

What Is the ECS?

The ECS is made up of a huge network of chemical signals and receptors. These networks are heavily spread throughout our brains and bodies, and the receptors are almost on guard duty — watching what the other receptor types are doing, and releasing signals when things get out of whack.

There are two main types of receptors: cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2). CB1 receptors are highly prevalent in several brain regions and sprinkled in a few more spots throughout the body. This type of receptor is thought to be responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis use, among many other things. CB2 receptors are present in far lesser quantities but are active in a number of immune cells and neurons. This type of receptor plays an important role for anti-inflammatory uses, but without activating the psychoactive effects common with CB1 activation.

Effects of the ECS

The ECS is responsible for a myriad of functions in the human body, which can all be wrapped up under the umbrella: homeostasis. The ECS is ultimately responsible for maintaining our bodies' stable environments. Basically, the ECS is constantly monitoring most of the other neurotransmitters in your body; when something goes awry, the ECS comes in and adjusts chemical levels to return everything to normal functionality.

For example, "a fracture in the toe would result in cell death. The resulting lymphatic response would increase blood flow and the migration of white blood cells to the surrounding areas. The ECS would then recognize the excess lymphatic signals, and after deciding that there is no longer a need for the increase of inflammation, the CB receptors in the surrounding immune cells and tissues will begin to bind with cannabinoids and start to slowly reduce these inflammatory responses." The ECS also regulates your body in other ways, such as decreasing pain responses and adjusting appetite.

Cannabinoids vs. Endocannabinoids

While the ECS does interact with cannabinoids (chemical compounds) found in cannabis, its innate function is to interact with the endocannabinoids (chemical compounds made inside the body) that are created in your body naturally. The first discovered endocannabinoid was anandamide (AEA), the name of which comes from the Sanskrit word ananda, or, bliss. The name highlights the interesting role of this self-made and -delivered cannabis-like, bliss-inducing substance. The second discovered endocannabinoid was 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), which turns out to be the most abundant endocannabinoid present in the body. 2-AG is thought to influence appetite regulation, pain management, and immune system functions.

So all of us have very cannabis-like molecules throughout our bodies — which our own bodies created — and also the network of receptors to use those cannabis-like molecules to regulate basically our entire bodily systems. And, thanks to modern research, we know that cannabinoids (cannabis molecules not native to our bodies) are also able to use these same receptors and pathways in the ECS.

The Constant Need for More Research

So why does all of this matter? Well, although humans have been enjoying cannabis for thousands of years, its use can sometimes be accompanied by a whole host of unwanted side effects. Modern research is focusing on isolating these cannabinoids from the plant and figuring out exactly how they interact with the ECS individually. With these discoveries, treatments can be created for specific symptoms, without the risk of complications from the side effects of pure cannabis.

For example, there are a few cannabis-derived drugs available on the market today (only 1 is approved in the U.S.). Nabiximols is available in 25 countries and is finally in phase 3 clinical trials in the U.S.; this drug is for alleviating symptoms of multiple sclerosis, including neuropathic pain, spasticity, and overactive bladder. Epidiolex is available in the United States and is FDA approved to treat seizures that are a result of a few exceedingly-rare conditions in young children. Both of these drugs are effective because of the research done to understand how they interact with the endocannabinoid system.

However, there is always room for more research. For example, the drug Rimonabant was created and found to suppress CB1 receptor activity. Since this receptor is known for regulating appetite, suppressing this response also suppressed appetite and created an effective anti-obesity drug. However — not enough was known about the drug at the time, and after only two years it was withdrawn worldwide after mental health concerns. See, suppressing the CB1 receptor in this way also affected mood stability and ultimately created a drug that caused serious psychiatric side effects, often including severe suicidal thoughts.

It is through further research that modern science will start to understand more about cannabinoids, endocannabinoids, cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and how they all work together and individually. And, hopefully, in the future, more of these cannabinoids will be understood well enough to be beneficial and useful for a myriad of symptoms of the human condition.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System? — A Final Word

We know that the ECS is responsible for regulating almost all of the functions of the human body, but we're still not quite sure exactly how all of these interactions work. However, future research looks quite promising for continual discoveries of how we can better put our endocannabinoid systems to use.

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