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What Is The Endocannabinoid System and What Is Its Role?

Endocannabinoid System

Cannabinoid Receptors & The Endocannabinoid System

People have used cannabis for health and wellness for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the advent of modern science that we figured out how this plant works.

After isolating CBD and THC, researchers found that these compounds interact with specific receptors in the brain. 

This led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve discovered more and more evidence that this system has an immense influence on our health and holds the potential to help with a wide range of health disorders.

What is the endocannabinoid system? What is its role? How can you use CBD oil to support it? Here’s what you need to know.

Image illustration of the human Endocannabinoid System.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system is a biological system that helps maintain homeostasis, a healthy state of balance in the body.

It consists of a network of cannabinoid receptors, the endocannabinoids that activate them, and the enzymes that help build and break down these cannabinoids. 

A simple way to think of this system is to imagine receptors as locks and cannabinoids as keys. When a cannabinoid like THC attaches to a receptor, it acts like a key that fits into a specific lock and produces certain effects.

Interestingly, the endocannabinoid system can also be found in many other animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and even sea urchins. This suggests that it developed hundreds of millions of years ago.

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What is the Role of the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system plays a major role in maintaining homeostasis — a healthy state of balance in our bodies. As such, it helps regulate a wide range of processes, including:

  • Appetite, digestion, and metabolism
  • Immune system function
  • Anxiety, stress, mood, fear, and emotions
  • Memory and learning
  • Pain and inflammation
  • Sleep

To illustrate these effects, let’s take the example of anxiety. We need to feel some anxiety because it’s beneficial to our cognitive performance and outright survival. But too much anxiety can wreak havoc on our mental health. 

Similarly, inflammation is a beneficial process that helps us heal, but if it goes too far, inflammation leads to health problems.

In this sense, the endocannabinoid system can be thought of as a scale that tips ever so slightly to keep our bodies at just the right balance.

We’re still learning more about the biological effects of this complex system. But what science can tell us for certain is that the endocannabinoid system plays a major role in our health and well-being. 

Accumulating evidence has led some researchers to suggest that endocannabinoid deficiency — a condition where this system does not function properly — is the underlying cause of a wide range of difficult-to-treat health disorders, including migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. 

This helps explain why so many people are finding relief for these and other symptoms and conditions by using CBD oil and other cannabis preparations.

What Are Endocannabinoids?

Although the endocannabinoid system was discovered as a result of studying the effects of phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids made by plants, like THC and CBD), it turns out that the human body produces its own endocannabinoids (“endo” meaning within). 

These compounds are produced by our bodies on-demand and break down relatively quickly, which makes sense because the endocannabinoid system is meant to help us maintain homeostasis in the face of changing conditions.

In particular, researchers have discovered two main endocannabinoids: anandamide and 2-AG. Both of these compounds have a wide range of health effects.

For example, 2-AG is released during orgasm, suggesting that one of its functions is to act as a reward mechanism for sexual arousal.

Meanwhile, anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word “ananda” meaning bliss, is known to reduce anxiety and fear.

In fact, one of the reasons why some people are naturally less anxious is because they have a genetic variation that increases their anandamide levels.

In addition, research suggests it’s the compound responsible for the calm, euphoric feeling after exercising known as the “runner’s high.” 

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Cannabinoid Receptors: What they Are and What They Do

Receptors are protein molecules that sit on the surface of a cell and interact with specific compounds outside of it. So far, researchers have identified two cannabinoid receptors — CB1 and CB2. 

However, emerging evidence suggests there are many other “orphan” and unidentified receptors that may be part of the endocannabinoid system and will be eventually classified as CB3, CB4, and so on. 

The cannabinoids made inside and outside our bodies interact with these receptors in unique ways, which explains why individual cannabinoids have varying effects.

CB1 is one of the most abundant receptors in the central nervous system, which highlights just how important the endocannabinoid system is to brain function and overall health.

This receptor is responsible for most of the effects of anandamide. THC, which resembles anandamide in structure, also works mainly through the CB1 receptor.

Meanwhile, the CB2 receptor is found primarily in immune system cells, suggesting that it plays a key role in immunity and inflammation.

The Endocannabinoid System and CBD

What’s interesting about CBD is that it doesn’t interact strongly with either CB1 or CB2. Instead, research suggests that CBD affects other receptors that are believed to be part of the endocannabinoid system but not yet recognized as such. 

One of these is GPR55, a receptor that regulates pain. GPR55 is considered the leading candidate for becoming the third cannabinoid receptor.

Another potential cannabinoid receptor CBD interacts with is vanilloid receptor 1 (TRPV1), which regulates inflammation and pain.

In addition, CBD has been demonstrated to increase the levels of anandamide by inhibiting fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), the main enzyme that breaks down endocannabinoids. With more anandamide circulating in your body, you get more of its benefits.

These are just some of the ways CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system. As it stands, we still have far more to learn. 

Also, it’s important to highlight that CBD works through other mechanisms as well, such as interacting with the serotonin receptor and increasing the levels of certain brain chemicals. 

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Using CBD to Support the Endocannabinoid System

As we can see, phytocannabinoids such as CBD give us a natural way to reap the benefits of the endocannabinoid system.

This means cannabis preparations offer a holistic approach to bringing our health back into balance.

Millions of people worldwide are doing just that by using CBD oil and other cannabis and hemp-based products to benefit their health in a myriad of ways.

The Endocannabinoid System: The Next Great Frontier

The endocannabinoid system plays an influential role in human health that we’re only beginning to understand.

As recent research findings highlight, the dysfunction of this holistic system may be linked to a wide range of health disorders.

Researchers predict that the endocannabinoid system will be the target of many new drugs in the future, helping with such difficult-to-treat conditions as:

  • mood and anxiety disorders
  • neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s
  • spinal cord injury
  • psychiatric disorders
  • obesity and diabetes
  • arthritis
  • osteoporosis
  • gut inflammation
  • hypertension
  • glaucoma
  • and even cancer

The future is full of promise as ongoing research efforts help us better understand the inner workings of the endocannabinoid system and how we can support it by using CBD and other cannabis preparations.

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