What is the endocannabinoid system?

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Cannabis and its components are gaining increasing popularity, especially in the medical field, since they seem to have beneficial effects on humans and animals. But few people know what the endocannabinoid system is. Lets explore.

Cannabidiol (CBD), one of the most beneficial cannabinoids, is thought to have multiple health benefits and can interact with several systems of the human body, including the brain and immune system.

But how does this happen?

Strangely enough, cannabinoids such as CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can interact with our bodies because we are already naturally equipped to deal with those types of substances, through a special system called the endocannabinoid system.

Below, we outline some of the history of the endocannabinoid system, how it was discovered, what it is, and how important it is to our health.

Discovery of the cannabinoid receptors

Since the beginning of the 19040s, scientists had already been able to isolate a few cannabinoids from cannabis and started studying why they had effects on the human body. Soon they began to realize not all cannabinoids affected the body in the same way, and the curiosity grew even more.

In the 1960s and 1970s, recreational use of cannabis increased exponentially in the UK and other countries, pushing the scientific research even further.

The fact that only certain types of cannabinoids had psychoactive influences on the body (for example, THC but not CBD), and that not all cannabinoids acted in the same body structures in the same way or in the same quantities, led the scientists to suspect that their actions may be due to their specific connection to certain areas of the body (known as receptors), and that this connection might be dependent on the cannabinoids’ chemical structure (thus explaining why not all cannabinoids had the same effects on the same areas).

Finally, in the late 1980s, scientists discovered specific receptors for cannabinoids in the brain of a rat, to which they called “CB1 receptors”. Later, they found other receptors, called “CB2 receptors”, and discovered that both these types of receptors existed, not only in rats but also in humans.

  • CB1 receptors mainly exist on the nervous system, specifically on nerve endings.
  • CB2 receptors exist in the immune system, inside of the immune cells.

Each of these receptors is linked to specific places, proteins, other molecules and, when activated or inhibited, they have cascade-like effects on those molecules, producing several effects throughout the body. Examples of these effects are analgesia, inhibition of inflammatory processes, psychological alterations, among others.

Our bodies have cannabinoids of their own

After discovering that our bodies have specific receptors for cannabinoids, and several different processes depending on them, the scientists asked the most obvious question: why?

The fact that receptors for cannabinoids exist in the body could mean one of two things:

  • there were actual cannabinoids, naturally occurring, in the human body.
  • the human body was naturally equipped as a target for cannabis’ components.

The search for an answer began and, in the late 1990s, scientists found that the human body produces cannabinoids.

These were called endocannabinoids, as opposed to the ones produced in the cannabis plants, called phytocannabinoids.

Those two classes are similar, but not the same, and that is the reason why certain phytocannabinoids can act on the human body in smaller quantities while others need larger quantities to act, and why not all of them have the same effects: not all are compatible with all the cannabinoid receptors on the human body.

One example of a human endocannabinoid is anandamide (also known as AEA), the first endocannabinoid discovered by scientists. It’s responsible for controlling pain, fear, and anxiety, among other roles. THC, one of cannabis’ cannabinoids, is thought to have a few effects which are similar to the effects of AEA, simply because THC can also connect to the receptors naturally designed for anandamide and other endocannabinoids.

The endocannabinoid system

This term is used to refer to the whole system that involves natural endocannabinoids and their natural receptors. It’s very complex since the receptors are widely distributed in the body (and in very important places) and can have cascade-like effects on other molecules and cells.

Although this system is naturally designed for our own natural endocannabinoids, the chemical resemblance of phytocannabinoids allows them to connect to our receptors and have similar effects.

In other words, the fact that these receptors exist in key places like the nervous system and immune system is the reason why cannabinoids can have effects like decreasing pain, inflammation, and anxiety, or even produce psychological, cognitive and memory changes.

Given the existence of this system on the human body, the study and use of the cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant may help design very interesting therapeutic approaches, since these compounds can act on the human body almost as if they are its natural endocannabinoids.

CBD, for example, is currently one of the most promising phytocannabinoids. Its affinity for the cannabinoid receptors is not as high as THC’s, for example, but maybe that’s precisely what makes it safer and easier to control and monitor.

The discovery of the human endocannabinoid system gave scientists new ways to study diseases and new forms of treatment that may very well be the start of a whole new medical approach.

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