Many of us know that our body is full of transmitter systems, what many of us may have never heard of is the more recently discovered endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system regulates and controls many of our most critical bodily functions such as learning, memory, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, inflammatory and immune responses, and eating. The endocannabinoid system is more commonly referred to as the ECS.

The human body naturally produces endocannabinoids with the help of consuming foods like fatty acids found in nuts and fish. The 60 cannabinoid molecules found in cannabis also can bind to cannabinoid cell receptors and the corresponding molecules (agonists) in the human body.

How does the endocannabinoid system work?

The ECS involves three core components. These are endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids, also called endogenous cannabinoids, are molecules made by your body. They’re similar to cannabinoids, but they’re produced by your body. Endocannabinoids help keep internal functions running smoothly. Your body produces them as needed, making it difficult to know what typical levels are for each.

Endocannabinoid receptors

Endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout your body. Endocannabinoids bind to them in order to signal that the ECS needs to take action.

There are two main endocannabinoid receptors:

  • CB1 receptors: These are mostly found in the central nervous system
  • CB2 receptors: These are mostly found in your peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells

Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The effects that result depend on where the receptor is located and which endocannabinoid it binds to. Endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain. Others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders.

Enzymes

Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function.

There are two main enzymes responsible for this:

  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase, which breaks down AEA
  • Monoacylglycerol acid lipase, which typically breaks down 2-AG

What are the functions of the endocannabinoid system?

Due to its complexities, and the fact that it’s still newly discovered, all of the functions of the ECS are still not fully understood.

Research has linked the ECS to the following processes:

  • Appetite and digestion
  • Metabolism
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation and other immune system responses
  • Mood
  • Learning and memory
  • Motor control
  • Sleep
  • Cardiovascular system function
  • Muscle formation
  • Bone remodeling and growth
  • Liver function
  • Reproductive system function
  • Stress
  • Skin and nerve function

These functions all contribute to homeostasis, which refers to stability of your internal environment. For example, if an outside force, such as pain from an injury or a fever, throws off your body’s homeostasis, your ECS kicks in to help your body return to its ideal operation.

Homeostasis, from the Greek words for “same” and “steady,” refers to any process that living things use to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival.

How does CBD interact with the endocannabinoid system?

CBD is also known as cannabidiol, which is a cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. Unlike other elements found within the plant, CBD doesn’t get you high and is not psychoactive. It does this, as well as providing a host of other beneficial effects, by promoting homeostasis within the body. This is essentially a healthy balance of all the elements needed to promote healthy living in humans.

Many believe that CBD works by preventing endocannabinoids from being broken down. This allows them to have more of an effect on your body. Others believe that CBD binds to a receptor that hasn’t been discovered yet. While the details of how it works are still under debate, research suggests that CBD can help with pain, nausea, and other symptoms associated with multiple conditions.

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Endocannabinoid Deficiency

As more studies research the endocannabinoid system, several conditions have been discovered that appear to be related to dysregulation of the system. This is called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD).

The conditions that an endocannabinoid may play a role include:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraine
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

These conditions are sometimes called “functional conditions” or “central sensitivity syndromes.” They tend to be resistant to most treatments, so researchers are looking into cannabis-based treatments.

We’re still early in the process of figuring out how to correct endocannabinoid deficiency, but the increasing availability of medical marijuana and CBD products has been largely embraced by the patient community and we’re likely to see a lot more research in that area.

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Conclusion

Not only is the ECS a natural part of our bodies, but it’s also a crucial one. You may have heard a lot of claims about the medicinal properties of marijuana in general or of the cannabinoids THC and CBD. Medical science backs up many of these claims, and the reason for the far-reaching effects have to do with the size and scope of the endocannabinoid system itself

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the endocannabinoid system. As experts develop a better understanding of the ECS, it could eventually hold the key to treating several conditions.