Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a remarkable and vital system that regulates almost every aspect of our moment-to-moment functioning.
It plays a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis and controlling various bodily functions, including learning and memory, emotional processing, sleep, temperature control, pain control, inflammatory and immune responses, eating, and more.
The ECS comprises a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors that are densely packed throughout our brains and bodies. The cannabinoid receptors, particularly CB1 receptors in the brain, which outnumber many other receptor types, act as directional authorities in our bodies – modulating the levels and activity of other neurotransmitters and regulating those functions like hunger, temperature, and alertness through immediate feedback mechanisms.
To stimulate these receptors, our bodies produce molecules called endocannabinoids, which bear structural similarities to compounds in the cannabis plant. The first discovered endocannabinoid, anandamide, is named after the Sanskrit word “ananda” meaning bliss. These endocannabinoids, the cannabis-like molecules, are naturally present in the brains of living animals.
Because of the extent of the duties of the endocannabinoid system, it plays a central role in virtually every part of the human experience.
For its part, cannabis works with and increases the activity of the endocannabinoid system through the interaction of its cannabinoids with cannabinoid receptors in the body.
The cannabinoids present in cannabis, such as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), mimic the structure and function of endocannabinoids produced naturally within the body.
When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids bind to and activate the cannabinoid receptors in the ECS.
THC, the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, has a high affinity for CB1 receptors, those primarily found in the brain and spinal cord. When THC binds to CB1 receptors, it produces a range of effects, including psychoactive and intoxicating effects including euphoria, altered perception of time and space, relaxation, and increased appetite.
In addition to the CB1 receptors, there is a second type of cannabinoid receptor known as CB2, primarily found in immune tissues. CB2 receptors play a critical role in immune functioning, modulating inflammation, contraction, and pain in conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.
While THC has been shown to have some affinity for CB2 receptors, it has a much stronger connection to CB1 receptors. Despite that, activation of CB2 receptors by THC can modulate immune responses and has been associated with anti-inflammatory effects.
CBD, on the other hand, was long believed not to bind to cannabinoid receptors – but more recent research shows that CBD binds, less frequently, and activates receptors differently than THC, allowing it to modulate the ECS in different ways.
It can influence other receptors and pathways within the body, including serotonin receptors, vanilloid receptors, and adenosine receptors. CBD generally has a more restorative, balancing, and modulating effect on the ECS, rather than producing psychoactive effects like THC – and can even antagonize the effects of THC.
When cannabinoids from cannabis bind to cannabinoid receptors, they activate signaling pathways that influence various physiological processes. This activation can enhance the overall activity of the ECS by increasing the availability of cannabinoids and their interactions with receptors.
Cannabis use can also increase the production of endocannabinoids in the body. Regular cannabis consumption has been associated with an upregulation of endocannabinoid production and release, this increased presence of cannabinoids from cannabis can stimulate the synthesis and release of endocannabinoids, contributing to the overall function and activity of the ECS.
The interaction between cannabis and the ECS is complex and can vary depending on factors such as the specific cannabinoids present in the cannabis product, their concentrations, the mode of consumption, and the individual differences of people in factors like their metabolism and sensitivity to cannabinoids.