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The Endocannabinoid System

Sep 13th 2021

What is the endocannabinoid (end-o-can-nab-in-oid) system?

The short answer is, it’s complicated! The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is one of many cell signaling systems in our bodies that coordinate communication between different cells and body parts. When working properly, these signaling systems keep us happy and healthy and control many important processes in our bodies. More specifically, endocannabinoid is short for endogenous cannabinoid, which basically means cannabinoids that our bodies make. Scientists are actively studying and learning more about this system all of the time.

So far, scientists think that these molecules likely play a role in protecting against or helping improve many different problems, including chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, depression, seizures, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain kinds of cancer. They also think that this system plays a role in changing activity in the immune system to help decrease inflammation in the body. Most of what we know about this system comes from studying animal models like mice, which are obviously different from humans. But, scientists are confident that they will be able to apply some of what they have learned from mice to us!

The main endocannabinoids are 2-AG and AEA, but we’re learning that there are many others that may also have effects on the body. These endocannabinoids can bind to the receptors, CB1R and CB2R. CB1R is found mostly in neurons, which are cells of the nervous system. CB2R is found mostly in immune system cells, but is also found in some neurons. It’s important to note that these receptors are also found in cells of other organs of the body, including the liver, heart, and intestines, which is likely why the endocannabinoid system plays a role in many different diseases.

How does it work?

Generally speaking, signaling systems in your body work like this. In cells, specific molecules are released in response to a triggering mechanism. Those molecules then bind to receptors in the same or other cells, which lead to more chemical reactions. Those chemical reactions in individual cells eventually lead to a bigger outcome in the body, like your heart beating or you moving your arm. Pretty cool, right?

The endocannabinoid system works similarly. In response to increased calcium, cells in the nervous system called neurons produce the endogenous cannabinoids, 2-AG, and AEA. 2-AG can bind to both CB1R and CB2R, while AEA only binds CB1R. These cannabinoids get released from the neuron, bind to their receptors on nearby neurons, and generally decrease activity in the nervous system. This is likely what leads to their effects in the body on relaxation and pain.

What is the difference between an endocannabinoid and a phytocannabinoid?

"Endo" is short for endogenous, so an endocannabinoid is one that is produced within the body. "Phyto" is Greek for plant, so a phytocannabinoid is one that is found in plants.

How does CBD work with this system?

Scientists are still figuring this out! Cannabidiol, aka CBD, doesn’t bind as strongly to CB1R or CB2R as THC, and when it does, CBD usually blocks these receptors. CBD clearly doesn’t work by the same mechanism described above, but we have learned that CBD binds to other receptors in the endocannabinoid system and changes neuron activity, which likely leads to its many effects on the body. CBD can also change the activity of cells in the immune system. Unlike THC, CBD does not have psychoactive effects, so it doesn’t get you "high."

How does THC work with this system?

Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, binds CB1R and CB2R. When it does, THC activates these receptors, which leads to its many effects on the body, including the psychoactive ones that cause you to feel "high."

Interested in learning more about what all the acronyms above mean? Check out our Language of CBD post.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Consult your physician prior to use if you are pregnant, nursing or using other medications.