What is the endocannabinoid system and what does it do?

The chemical compounds of marijuana and hemp wouldn’t affect you at all if your body wouldn’t know how to interact with them. The endocannabinoid system regulates this interaction.

Not only that, it is also a vital system controlling key aspects of your health and well being. The result of this controlling function is a constant state of balance.

Scientists discovered the endocannabinoid system in the 1990s as part of the research of cannabis. They struggled to understand the effect of the cannabis compounds on the human body.

The effect of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was of special interest to them. Discovering the endocannabinoid system was a classic success story. Through that breakthrough, researchers unearthed more than they could have hoped for.

The use of marijuana was rising among countries in the developed world. So researchers wanted to provide more evidence to support arguments against its use. Regardless of that, even back then, marijuana has been used for easing certain symptoms like nausea and pain so it couldn’t be ignored any longer.

The endocannabinoid system consists of three parts:

  • Cannabinoid receptors
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Enzymes

Cannabinoid receptors

The best-studied cannabinoid receptors are CB1R and CB2R. These aren’t the only ones but they were the first ones discovered.

CB1R was the first receptor and first part of the endocannabinoid system that researchers found out about. Scientists wanted to get a better understanding of THC. They knew that THC targets certain areas in the brain and as part of that research CB1R receptors were uncovered.

The most receptor types in the human brain are CB1R receptors. Those receptors are the ones that interact with cannabis compounds like THC. Depending on the area of the brain, CB1R receptors can influence certain body functions. Such functions include movement, pain, sensory perception and memory.

CB1R receptors also appear in other parts of the central nervous system along the spinal cord and the heart. They appear in other parts of the body as well but in a lower density.

CB2R receptors were discovered in 1993. They appear mostly in the immune system and the digestive system. These receptors help to moderate inflammation and certain kinds of pain.

Cannabinoids

There are two types of cannabinoids:

  • Phytocannabinoids
  • Endocannabinoids.

Phytocannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds in cannabis plants. Scientists have identified over 100 of them so far. The most common phytocannabinoids are THC and cannabidiol (CBD).

Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring fatty acids in humans. As the name suggests they are part of the endocannabinoid system. The two main ones are anandamide and 2-AG. Both of them are synthesised on-demand by your body. Which also means they don’t need to be stored for later.

Body functions change as soon as cannabinoids bind to CB1R and CB2R receptors. Both types of cannabinoids bind to and activate receptors with one exception: CBD.

CBD has the ability to influence other types of receptors. This results in other endocannabinoids like THC not being able to bind to them anymore. This is also the reason why CBD can counteract the psychoactive high experienced when taking THC.

The chemical structure of THC is like the one of anandamide allowing THC to bind with CB1R receptors. But, THC cannot be broken down as quickly as anandamide by enzymes. This means it sticks around for longer creating the psychoactive high effect. In contrast, anandamide has a calming and relaxing effect on the body.

Enzymes

Once cannabinoids bind to receptors they need a mechanism telling them to stop their function. Otherwise, they would stimulate and affect receptors forever.

That’s where enzymes enter the game. The function of enzymes is to break down cannabinoids. The most researched enzymes are fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL).

Aster Flower on cloth next to brown bottle with propolis

FAAH is breaking down anandamide and MAGL is breaking down 2-AG. Enzymes work quickly on endocannabinoids but less efficient on phytocannabinoids hence THC’s effect. Both enzymes ensure endocannabinoids get used as needed storing nothing for later use.

The only thing stopping FAAH breaking down anandamide is CBD. This means anandamide has more of an impact on the body and is also the reason why CBD can help to reduce anxiety. It’s actually not the CBD itself that reduces the anxiety. The longer, relaxing impact of anandamide handles that

What does the endocannabinoid system do?

The primary function of the endocannabinoid system is to keep the balance and maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis means keeping everything in the body stable despite changes in the world outside. It means maintaining constant body temperature and keeping blood pressure down.

This ensures a functioning organ system. The range of this maintenance level is very narrow. If certain functions go beyond such range it results in sickness and can even be dangerous for the body.

This system is your master biological regulator involved in almost every single key function of your body.

Unfortunately, it is quite easy to throw your body out of balance with outside factors. Stress-induced from work, an unhealthy diet, not enough sleep, injuries. Those are all negative factors kicking your body out of homeostasis.

Yet, the system is very clever. It can learn and improve the more it encounters the same situation. When a stressful event occurs your body produces a stress hormone called cortisol which is released into the bloodstream. But, at the same time, your body also increases the production of endocannabinoids.

When the same stressful event happens a second or third time the system remembers the first time. Because of that memory, it increases endocannabinoid production. It increases this production to such an extent that the cortisol is counterbalanced. The end result is you not being as nervous and stressed as you have been the first time around

Illustration of brain parts under stress

Endocannabinoid deficiency

Many people suffer from chronic illnesses like migraines or inflamed digestive systems. Those chronic illnesses tend to be treatment-resistant. They are also a result of people not being able to produce enough endocannabinoids. At least that’s what scientists now believe. Thus, people are living with an endocannabinoid deficiency.

Chronic illnesses involve more than one system most of the time. This makes sense when you look at the many areas the endocannabinoid system is involved in.

Research is still in its early stages on the topic of endocannabinoid deficiency.

Factors that influence your endocannabinoid system

Scientists already know that with a few tricks around your lifestyle you can improve your system. Here are 3 factors that influence your system:

Exercise:

You’ve heard of the runner’s high. Long-distance runners are describing it as a feel-good effect and feeling of euphoria. A popular belief is that it is the endorphin which handles that.

According to a study released in 2015, this is only partially true as running also increases the amount of anandamide in your body.

Regardless if you going for a jog or working out in the gym. Exercising, in general, is stress relieving and hence having a positive effect on your body.

Your diet:

You probably know that eating too many fry ups and too much fast food is not good for your waistline. But this type of western diet with its unhealthy fat content and high amount of sugar is also affecting your endocannabinoid system.

Endocannabinoids are regulating your appetite. A western diet full of fat and sugar can increase the number of endocannabinoids in your system making you even hungrier and wanting more.

Fortunately, there are some foods which can help your system. Chocolate, Essential fats, herbs, spices, and tea can work as natural stimuli. You can also top up your system with broad-spectrum CBD oil.

Healthy food on left side of table, measuring tape in the middle, fast food on the right side

Chronic stress:

When “fight or flight” situations happen too often after each other your body doesn’t get the chance to calm down again. In such a case stress becomes chronic. In a normal stress situation, your body would reduce the amount of anandamide (relax). At the same time, it would increase the amount of 2-AG (dampens perception of pain and triggers memory).

If this situation never changes your body assumes you cannot escape the stress situation. The increased amount of 2-AG starts to overstimulate CB1R receptors in the brain. This in return starts to decrease CB1R receptors. With fewer receptors in your brain maintaining homeostasis will get increasingly difficult.

Are you suffering from chronic stress? If so, why don’t you have a look at my 10 effective stress hacks? Check them out here.

Conclusion

If you want your body to function at its best capacity you need to look after it. There is no reason why lifestyle-related factors should put your homeostasis out of wack. Having your internal system off balance for a prolonged period can have serious long-term consequences. Look after your body!

What are you doing to keep the balance in life? Let me know in the comment section below and don’t forget to sign up to my blog.

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